Greensboro City Council has decided to try and move more quickly on the Fresh Food Access Plan it adopted last summer rather than attaching funding to a bond referendum vote, instructing staff to come up with specific ways the city can fund initiatives to address food insecurity and hunger.
Food deserts are not a new problem in Greensboro — they’ve been around at least as long as Sue Schwartz, the planning director with more than 25 years under her belt at the city. But that doesn’t mean anyone knew what to do about the problem, or even how to define it.
“Since I’ve worked here, this has always been a serious issue, but it didn’t have a name,” she said.
Now that the term “food deserts” — used to describe a low-income area without readily available access to fresh food — is more widely in use, Schwartz said it’s easier to wrap your hands or your head around the problem. Looking at a map of the city’s food deserts, Schwartz noted that the areas are spread out geographically, though there is a higher concentration in the south and northeast. Mapping the issue makes it easier to understand both how the problem arose as well as what a solution will require, she said.
“This is a pile of spaghetti in terms of road networks,” Schwartz said, gesturing to parts of east Greensboro that were annexed long after the city’s founding and don’t follow a similar grid pattern of roads as the city’s core.
Only after recognizing the overlapping factors of transportation, accessibility, income and availability of quality food — among others — can a solution be devised, she said.
City staff, leaders and community organizations have worked to address food insecurity and hunger in Greensboro for years, but the Food Research & Action Center’s recent ranking of the Greensboro/High Point metro area as the second-worst in the nation — elevated to a shameful first place in April 2015 — injected a sense of urgency. The following month, city staff pulled together a Community Food Task Force at District 2 Councilman Jamal Fox’s behest, and in August of the same year the city council adopted a new Fresh Food Access Plan as policy.
Greensboro City Council recently considered tacking funding for a portion of the plan to a forthcoming bond referendum that will go before voters, but decided earlier this month that it wanted to fund actionable items faster than a typical bond timeline would allow, Schwartz said. A $1 million figure was bandied about, but as staff begins distilling specific ways the city could combat food hardship and access, Schwartz said there is not a specific commitment of funds at an exact dollar amount yet.
The Fresh Food Access Plan, which rings in at about 50 pages, outlines the city’s “food system” as a whole, identifying specific barriers to food access including a lack of retail, existing organizations such as the Renaissance Community Co-op and the Guilford Food Council, public engagement and recommendations related to production, distribution, retail and waste.
But despite the plan’s detail, it does not spell out exactly what a given proposal would cost or go into specifics about how to execute ideas such as “build and sustain relationships between producers, distributors and intuitional customers” or “establish community commercial kitchen facilities in food deserts.” The plan is general, Schwartz said, and the idea now is to drill down to specifics and a price tag.
The fall will be a full year after the city council adopted the Fresh Food Access Plan, but that’s not long in government/bureaucracy circles, Schwartz said. Especially considering the progress of the Community Food Task Force.
The somewhat informal group that meets monthly and is convened by Phil Fleischmann, community recreation services division manager in the city’s parks & recreation department. It functions differently than the city’s boards and commissions in that participants aren’t appointed by council and there’s no explicit membership, per se, Fleischmann said.
“It is a more free-flowing, grassroots sort of a group,” he said, adding that it’s an effective forum that enables people who want to help to plug in more quickly.
The group isn’t without structure — Fleischmann compiles an agenda with input from participants who are on an email listserv, and he prepares minutes for each meeting.
The task force has already taken on several projects, including one to provide weekend meals in the summer to complement school-year backpack programs, working with the Guilford Food Council to conduct “asset-mapping” around food such as which convenience stores already accept SNAP and EBT as well as helping to create the Fresh Food Access Plan itself last year, he said.
The group’s overarching goal is to address hunger and food insecurity by filling in gaps and connecting people and resources so that efforts aren’t redundant and organizations aren’t competing, Fleischmann said. Within the next year, the task force plans to undertake a strategic-planning effort to “lay a roadmap” for its future work.
Schwartz hopes that the food access plan can act as a map for residents and organizations as well, and not just the city. It’s written in a way that the average lay person could understand, designed to help people outside of city government comprehend the breadth of the problem and imagine some solutions. (Googling the plan quickly brings up an online version for those interested in reading it in full.)
When Schwartz read the finished plan, the thing that hit her is the complexity of the problem. There’s no silver bullet, or even five clear-cut things to do to solve food hardship, access and insecurity.
Russ Clegg — a long-range planner with the city of Greensboro and a former culinary school-trained chef — agreed.
“Food is very personal,” he said, adding that seemingly easy solutions run into problems when people don’t consider the full scope including what people know how to cook, like to eat or can afford. “There are different layers of need and types of need out there.”
Council and staff have learned that the hard way over the years, maybe most keenly with the repeated failed efforts to attract a grocery store to a vacant shopping center in a food desert in northeast Greensboro. Identifying the problem — even with a clear name and scope — isn’t necessarily enough, they learned. But they’re hopeful, not just for that neighborhood — where the grassroots-driven and city-backed Renaissance Community Co-op grocery store is slated to open — but for the progress now underway more broadly.
Wanna make a difference? You can stop by the next meeting of the Community Food Task Force on June 21 at Hemphill Library, located at 2301 W. Vandalia Rd. (GSO), at 2 p.m.