By Jen Baker [EXCERPT]
When a wide range of Americans voters were polled about the food system in fall 2015 the number one issue identified was that “all Americans don’t have equal access to healthy, affordable food.”
Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman and other noteworthy food thinkers have recently called for a National Food Policy, and the new Plate of the Union Campaign, sponsor of the poll and profiled in this Civil Eats article, is coordinating an effort between food and agriculture groups to influence candidates running for president.
As promising as the idea of national policy redirection may be, local food activists aren’t waiting for change at that level. Many groups, non-profits, agencies, companies and individuals are forging ahead, revising the Triangle food scene on the ground and bettering the entire community with every step they take.
One recent success story of increasing access to healthy, affordable food is the Geer Street Food Corridor in Durham. Located between North Mangum and North Roxboro streets, it’s a living laboratory of “food systems thinking” translated into community development action.
Its interlocking elements stand alone and yet support each other:
- A food hub, Bull City Cool, houses two non-profit food distributors and supports the cold storage and packing needs of other local food businesses;
- Inter-Faith Food Shuttle farms an urban agriculture site;
- And a healthy corner store is supported by the Partnership for a Healthy Durham and the Durham Health Department.
The driver behind all of these elements, and the developer of the food hub, is Durham’s Reinvestment Partners, guided by Executive Director Peter Skillern. Through traditional real estate development, innovative collaborations and a visionary sense of purpose that connects neighborhood impact with lasting policy and systems changes, Skillern provided the will and capacity to create these urban food opportunities.
Skillern refined his vision through the work and guidance of Erin White, founder of Raleigh’s Community Food Lab, a hybrid design practice inventing new approaches to healthy food systems.
White describes food systems thinking, an iteration of design thinking, as an umbrella term to describe the creation of a healthy food system. It encompasses two ideas:
- All food system projects, from a community garden to a food hub to a farmers market, can be seen as tools that each bring their own mix of social, economic, and ecological benefits. If you understand how each of these ‘tools’ work, anyone working to create healthy communities can match particular tools to the needs of their community.
- Since a healthy food system is dependent on everyone’s willingness to contribute to it, participation is one of the most important goals in achieving food system health.
Defining the terms is important. According to White:
- A food system is the “set of interconnected people, policies, infrastructures, and activities that provide people with food, from the farm to the table.”
- A healthy food system provides “all people with a reliable supply of nutritious food, and does so in a way that is sustainable and inclusive of all people’s needs. A healthy food system is often local, but not always.”
- A local food system is “measured by close proximity from the end consumer; that is, all of the food system parts would be within a certain distance to be considered local. Local food systems typically have a greater diversity of players and organizations involved; have strong relationships that create a resilient network of products and knowledge, transparency of provenance and handling; a generally closer connection between consumers and the land that produces the food; and shorter transportation needs that can increase freshness, nutrition, and energy sustainability.”
Their first step was to create a plan, a food system vision for the neighborhood. It included a series of large and small moves to maintain momentum while providing broader goals. Three years after that initial plan, each of the major elements is complete.
White was quick to emphasize the power of partnership, and the critical need for capital and resources.
In the Geer Street project, Reinvestment Partners brought the will to change the neighborhood, the capital and resources to drive development, time to convene and coordinate partners, and the expertise to keep these pieces together. Community Food Lab brought the concept, project planning consulting, design and the key ideas that have continued to inform Reinvestment Partners’ thinking on healthy food systems.”
Perhaps the most visible success is Reinvestment Partners’ crown jewel of the project – the Bull City Cool food hub. It repurposed an old Gulf gas and service station1 to serve as an aggregator for consumers and groups wanting to buy and/or redistribute local farm-fresh veggies. Winner of the Triangle Community Foundation’s 2015 Innovation Award, Bull City Cool provides cool and cold storage for Durham businesses.
Food systems thinking is about innovation, inclusivity, creativity and big ideas, but in the end it’s simple: building healthy cities, and healthy people. No election required.