Wednesday night I attended a forum hosted by the Charlotte Mecklenburg Food Policy Council. Although it was titled “Growing Local Food Entrepreneurs,” I wasn’t entirely sure whether it would benefit or really interest me in any way. But I write about food, I feel like an entrepreneur, and there were going to be free samples, so what was there to lose?
The number of people that gathered at 7th Street Market at 5:00 was impressive, but it didn’t take very long to notice a sad sameness in the crowd. Overwhelmingly white, reasonably affluent, mostly young. The host, presenter and panel members also fit this demographic. Fashionable sandals and business cards were everywhere.
To begin, we were treated to a presentation with lots of facts from a government-funded assessment of our food system: 286 farms in Mecklenburg County, most of them small family farms; $763 million spent on fruit and vegetables by residents of the 14-county assessment region, $100 million of that food grown locally; the average worker’s annual income is $27,500, the average farm worker’s is $22,000, and the average food preparation worker’s is $20,000.
I found all these numbers fascinating, but as the presentation moved from “findings” to “opportunities,” I kept waiting to hear something that truly fit the next buzzword, “action plan.” When all was said and done, the only real action I heard suggested was “intentional network development.” Basically, get like-minded people together to…talk to each other.
Wasn’t that what we were already doing?
After the presentation, there was a more informative panel discussion featuring three small business owners and the manager of one of our local farmers markets. But I still felt a disconnect between this discussion about maneuvering through local permitting processes and all the information that had been revealed earlier. Granted, the focus of this gathering was indeed to support the development of local food businesses, but it seemed like the overarching goal was supposed to be getting healthy food to people who don’t have access to it.
And that, at least in our community, is the real disconnect. The individual enthusiasm I observe for healthy, sustainable food grown locally is funneled into local businesses like raw food restaurants, artisan bakers and specialty cheese producers. Is locally fermented kombucha really the best answer we have for Charlotte’s rising obesity rates and stubborn food deserts?
Let me clarify a few things here—I am not knocking any of the businesses to which I’ve alluded above, nor do I think that encouraging local food entrepreneurs is a useless undertaking. I’m just expressing my frustration that, with all the eager, head-nodding concern and enthusiasm I’ve witnessed in numerous similar gatherings, combined with the rapid increase in demand for locally produced foods, we seem no closer to taking strong action to spread this nutritional wealth down the socio-economic ladder.
Perhaps my frustration stems from the fact that I had spent two days previous to this forum volunteering with Friendship Gardens. In fact, I arrived there directly from meeting with a group of gardening senior citizens, under the auspices of the Backyard Friendship Gardens program. This initiative invites home gardeners to plant and donate extra harvest to Friendship Trays, our local meals on wheels program. Being relatively new, the Backyard program’s biggest obstacle right now is figuring out the most effective way to get that produce from all over the city into the donation station close to Uptown.
Do you sense a theme here? We have 286 farms in Charlotte, and numerous food deserts. We have churches, schools and individuals willing to farm in their own backyards and give the food away. Yet, we cannot seem to get the food from the ground where it’s grown to the people who need it.
In short, our biggest food problem is transportation.
I am not a policy wonk. The further issues of funding, education, jurisdiction of government agencies, additional social factors are beyond my ken. All I know is that there are citizens out there whose only food options are wrapped in plastic and labeled with unpronounceable ingredient lists, and there is a growing pool of farmers growing healthy, whole food practically next door. What is it going to take to bring them together?