Reflections on the Gathering of Food Councils

Written by Margaret Krome-Lukens, Carrboro Market Assistant Manger

Going to the Gathering of Food Councils in Winston-Salem in December was a really inspiring, motivating experience.

First, a shout-out: the gathering, hosted by the Local Food Council of North Carolina and the Forsyth Community Food Consortium, and facilitated by the awesome, capable people at the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, was one of the best thought-out, well-run conferences I’ve been to. I really appreciate all the time, care, and thought that went into making this gathering accessible and maximally useful for all of the folks attending!

Before we get any farther, here’s a link to the gathering materials – presentation slides, ways to stay connected, etc. I definitely recommend checking them out and I’ll highlight a few below.

I learned so much at this gathering, I definitely won’t be able to fit it all in this post, but I’ll try to share my major take-aways!

One of the things the gathering did best was to help us network. Not only did they give us lots of time specifically for networking, they gave us pointers on not feeling too shy, and led us in some networking exercises with the other attendees in our local region. I know more folks now than I used to! This fit nicely with one of my main take-aways: the more connections we have with other people and organizations, the stronger our work is.

Wendy Peters-Moschetti, the keynote speaker, led a session on her food system work in Pueblo, CO. I’ll just come right out and say I get really excited about data, so I was really interested in her experience in Pueblo: they started with a problem – health disparities (especially chronic disease) that tend to be highly related to the existing food environment – and decided to start tackling it by doing a food system assessment for the county. Find the assessment here. What the data wound up telling them was that while there were few direct market outlets in Pueblo for health food, the county was over-retailed with Unhealthy food. With all this data in hand, they formalized a food action group, which undertook the Healthy Corner Store Pilot Project – using the existing retail infrastructure, corner stores, and getting corporate buy-in for them to stock more healthy local options. Data! It’s amazing!

There’s a real need in food systems work for truly representative community participation, and lots of councils struggle with this. Dr. Forrest Toms led a session on successful engagement and developing cultural competency as an organization. He talked about the important of having justice & equity written into your mission and built into your plan, and talking and working “with & through” others rather than “to and for” them. There are lots of reasons why successful engagement can be hard. He said that if you really want to have folks participating, it needs to work for them – and this means creating a variety of ways for people to engage. It’s also important to know the psycho-social history of people in your area, and to get comfortable with discomfort. Persistence, follow-up, and helping people feel prepared and relevant are also important for this work. I liked his definition of engagement: “mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.” When we ask people to be involved in our cause, we need to realize that we’re asking them to give, and we need to be ready to give, too.

In various sessions we talked a lot about the tension between building the organizational structure of your council – things like mission statements, and formalized structure, and a defined process for getting things done – and DOING projects. Funders like to see projects, and they can help attract energy to your group, but it’s also true that those projects will be more successful, and better tied to the community, if they’re coming out of an organization that’s done a good job laying the groundwork. Councils are also more likely to last if they have a solid foundation.

Another issue under discussion was how a council decides what it’s going to work on. Wendy Peters-Moschetti, in her work with councils, has them articulate some criteria by which the council will judge potential projects or priorities. I think this process might be a really important one for a council: coming together to name some values and goals as a group, both to start off on the same foot, and as a place to come back to.

Rochelle Sparko of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association led a session on how to pick your issue. This session was mainly in reference to policy work rather than more intervention-type projects, but I think that a lot of the same lessons apply. Rochelle’s presentation included one of my favorite slides of the gathering, on criteria for picking an issue:

issue chart

Choosing an issue can be challenging for a food council. I think it’s another reason why it can be so helpful having a solid understanding of what the council’s structure and values are before trying to dive into the complicated stuff.

Rochelle also said that because so much more policy is getting done on a local and state level, it’s really important for us to be working on that level! It’s also true that really successful local projects have a way of attracting attention at the federal level.

One of the things that impressed me the most during this gathering was the work of the Creative Insight Council. They basically just sat together in a room the whole time and chewed over the question, “How can food councils procure the resources they need to be effective and sustainable?” Their resulting graphic of decision-turns was awesome! See “Decision Turns identified by the Creative Insight Council” near the bottom of this page to check it out. I think that our council is probably still a bit young for some of the questions they’re asking – but not by much! I’m so glad these folks shared the benefits of their experience and I hope we can keep their wisdom in mind.

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