Food alliance addresses immediate need and long-term development

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by Jordan Green

An inaugural food summit in High Point attempts to address hunger by augmenting traditional charity with economic development.

The old JC Penney store in Oak Hollow Mall was a fitting site for the first food summit held by the Greater High Point Food Alliance, which is seeking ways build sustainable food systems in a local economy where employment has been gutted by offshoring and automation.

The mall failed some years ago as the buying power of the city’s middle class gradually diminished, and High Point University acquired the property. Today, Dillard’s and a handful of retail stores are all that remains of commercial trade at the mall, and a nondenominational church is leasing one of the anchor spaces. Otherwise, vast stretches of the mall remain clean and empty, mostly used by elderly residents as an indoor walking track. The old JC Penney store has a new life as the High Point University Community Center.

The idea of moving beyond charity and helping people take responsibility for meeting their own needs resonates with many of the volunteers who have committed their time and energy to the food alliance. The parable about teaching a man to fish resonated through many of the discussions and speeches at the food summit, which was held on March 20-21. But the Rev. Joe Blosser, a member of the executive committee that convened the food alliance, noted a significant barrier to achieving self-reliance.

“We have a unique issue here in High Point in that many of the ponds that people are fishing in have done run out of fish,” he said. “They know how to fish. They’re skilled laborers, but their fish got shipped overseas. They know how to fish, but there’s nothing in the pond. So as a community we have to figure out ways to restock that pond or teach ’em to hunt.”

About 3,000 people attended the summit on March 21, roughly divided among people experiencing hunger, professionals who work in the nonprofit sector and board members and donors, Blosser said. The second day of the summit, highlighted by a keynote speech by IGA Chairman Thomas Haggai, tilted heavily toward the latter segment.

Since convening about six months ago, the food alliance has adopted an ambitious set of plans with a sophisticated grassroots organization. Blosser and others brought together the food alliance following a series of articles in the High Point Enterprise highlighting the Food Research & Action Center’s ranking of the Greensboro-High Point metropolitan area as second in the nation for food hardship.

The food alliance’s multi-pronged strategy includes networks in three inner-city neighborhoods — West End, Washington Street and Burns Hill — and teams tackling a range of facets, from pantries and hot meals that address immediate needs, to food education and urban agriculture that contribute to long-term sustainability. The alliance also includes a working group that is looking at a range of food access approaches, including backpacks, mobile meals, mobile markets and salvaging discarded food.

The membership of the urban agriculture group represents both producers and retailers, two sectors vital to creating a sustainable model. The team includes Ross Lackey, a farmer who has been trying to reform municipal ordinances to be able to sell his produce in the city; Jose Abreu, the manager at Superior Foods grocery on Centennial Street; and Ralph Soviero, who owns a landscape business.

“They want to create a resource guide for urban agriculture,” Blosser said. “We have a great resource with the cooperative extension for the county. They want to create a guide that includes the cooperative extension information, but also includes really local information. Like, if you need seedlings, you can call Jose at Superior Foods, or you can call Ralph. Or, if you need help with compost, Ross Lackey will help you with compost — he’ll be out there later in the day with a truckload of compost if you call him.”

Blosser said afterwards that he came to appreciate through the summit that transportation is a significant challenge, not just for food access but surviving poverty in general.

“When you’re talking about urban agriculture, it’s how do you get people to the community gardens,” Blosser said. “With the food pantries, they’re in the wealthy churches, but that’s not where the need is.”

When volunteers canvassed the three target neighborhoods to invite people to attend the summit, Blosser said they also surveyed the residents and found that 46 percent of households had no vehicle.

At the conclusion of the summit on March 21, Carl Vierling, one of the conveners, outlined a vision.

“The task at hand is to alleviate hunger,” he said. “The task at hand is to think about doing things differently. The task at hand is at the end of the day to actually create jobs. That is our ultimate goal at the end of the day. It’s having a large urban plot some place and teaching someone how to farm that land, and creating income. It’s possibly one day — just maybe, just maybe — a community cannery where we bring in the excess of all the community gardens. And we’ve got a grocer who’s willing to sell the product. And we begin to create jobs.”