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To combat food insecurity, Orange County's food council aims to change policy

School garden tour (Estes Hill).JPG

Food Council members and elected officials learn about the importance of school gardens at a school garden tour at Estes Hill Elementary led by the CHCCS Sustainability Director Dan Schnitzer. Photo courtesy of Ashley Heger. 

Five years ago, Orange County citizens partnered with Community Food Strategies (CFS) to work on forming partnerships within the community to create a sustainable and equitable food system.

Now the group, the Orange County Food Council, has a strong foundation and feels ready to take on policy changes.

Julia Sendor, who co-chairs the OCFC with Mariela Hernandez, said the group's values are rooted in listening to the perspectives of people who have lived experience in the areas in which they're working. She said this includes food access, the local food economy, food waste and racial equity.

The 15-member council has seats for each elected body, including representatives from the Orange County Board of County Commissioners, Hillsborough Board of Commissioners, Carrboro Town Council and Chapel Hill Town Council. A fifth designated seat goes to a representative from the Orange County Agricultural Preservation Board, whose role is to represent agriculture and farming. 

Ken Dawson, the Agricultural Preservation Board representative, is a farmer for Maple Spring Gardens who has worked in agriculture for over 40 years. He said this experience influences how he carries out his role for the food council.

“I bring a perspective to it that nobody else on the food council has, really,” Dawson said. “For a long time, I’ve grown food and we’ve always marketed our food to the local community, so we’ve been very much involved in the local food economy.”

Ashley Heger also holds an important role on the OCFC. She is the food council coordinator, which is a full-time paid position that was established in the last two years. 

“On a broader scale, my role is to help guide the work of the food council," Heger said. "So if we are interested in developing policy or advocacy efforts around a particular issue, whether that’s agricultural land use or improving access to fresh food, my role is to understand those best practices, work with stakeholders, especially those with experience in those areas, and then to make recommendations or help coordinate actions within our network."

The food council has working groups that are made up of mostly volunteers. These working groups are Food Access, Local Food Economy, Food Waste Rescue and Racial Equity. The groups hold meetings and provide recommendations to the council members. 

Dawson said the Local Food Economy working group is developing surveys to assess farmer needs in the county, the food waste rescue group is looking to reduce food waste and the food access working group is organizing a living wage campaign.

“One of the biggest barriers to access to good healthy food for a lot of people within the county is lack of the money to buy it with," Dawson said. "They (the food access working group) will see if the living wage campaign is one way to address that."

In addition to the work done by the food council working groups, Heger said the council has worked to facilitate a relationship between Orange County Solid Waste and Orange County Schools.

“Orange County school system launched a pilot program in two elementary schools for a composting system within the school," she said. "And the intent is to actually have a school-system wide composting program similar to Chapel Hill-Carrboro." 

She said the OCFC aims to expand their duties past facilitation and relationship building and hopes to enter a policy phase. Heger said for her, this appears in the form of a Food Policy Agenda.  

Dawson said this agenda would involve looking at every aspect of the local food system, from production and distribution to consumption and disposal. 

Heger said once this data is collected, it will be analyzed to determine what policy recommendations the council should make. She said the purpose of the Food Policy Agenda is not just to determine what problems are, but more so why they exist.

“So, not ‘oh we recognize there’s an issue around food security, we want to build 10 more food pantries,’ but ‘what are the root causes of the food insecurity’ and how can we take a policy approach to potentially see greater impacts and better food justice and food equity down the road,” Heger said.

Sendor said she was excited about partnering with the Health Equity Council in Orange County to create a county-wide data index that would be used along with the Food Policy Agenda.

“It will not only help us create thoughtful policy but also allow the impact of the policy to be tracked over time because sometimes people propose a policy and they are predicting what the outcome will be but can’t know and also sometimes don’t have a way to clearly track what the outcome is until much later,” she said.

Gini Knight, a project manager for Community Food Strategies, said the 35 food councils in the CFS network in North Carolina are starting to collaborate.

“Councils are collaborating together to learn from each other, and influence policy at the statewide and even federal level,” Knight said. “And that was something that we didn’t necessarily expect to happen right away and it’s happened organically and they see the value and power in working together to do that.”

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Sendor said she hopes the OCFC can inspire other councils to invest in similarly structured programs.

“Once you create these structures, how can you start to create deeper systemic change and at the same time make sure that that work is rooted in robust data and also in valuing through lived experience and in racial equity and begin to show that all of those things are at the core of the decision-making process?” she said. “It really can bring about more of a thriving food system for everyone.”


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