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Designing Better Local Food Systems – Wake County (Blog)

North Carolina is the 10th hungriest state in the nation, with 604,000 households that do not have enough to eat. The Wake County Food Security Plan tackles hunger through a whole systems approach, examining not only hunger, but the social and economic context around the issue.

The Challenge

Food insecurity is a pervasive issue facing North Carolinians. In fact, North Carolina is the 10th hungriest state in the nation, with about 604,000 households that do not have enough to eat. Hunger is an individual condition that is hard to measure. Instead, the USDA measures the household level economic condition of food insecurity. Food insecurity is defined as “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” Food insecurity is a complex problem related to a wide variety of other issues that can include poverty, education, and health. Wake County has about 131,800 residents with low food security, which is about 13.8%—higher than the United States average of 12.3%.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates hunger trends. NC Child reports that the pandemic increased the share of food insecure families in North Carolina, and similarly, the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina reported a 38% increase in food need throughout their service area.

The Solution

In 2014, Wake County leaders came together to examine Wake County’s hunger issues. They formed a collective impact initiative and comprehensive food security plan for the county titled Moving Beyond Hunger. The Wake County Commissioners funded the project in 2015, and organizers released a report and action plan in 2017. The action plan emphasized collaboration between nonprofit organizations, for-profit businesses, and local government to achieve their vision: “A food secure Wake County, where ALL people have physical, social, and economic access to safe, nutritious, culturally appropriate, and affordable food.” The Capital Area Food Network, Wake County’s food council, consists of several working circles that focus on different aspects of the food system. One of the circles, the Food Access Circle, is dedicated to the implementation of the Wake County Food Security Plan.

The action plan outlines a “whole systems” approach, which considers not only the issue of food insecurity, but the social and economic context in which food security exists. Included in the plan were five strategies, key indicators to track progress, and key actions. The key actions were divided into fast-start actions and longer growing actions, accounting for the long-term context of food insecurity.

The strategies include:

  1. Ensure Food Access
  2. Communicate and Educate
  3. Develop Sustainable Food Supply
  4. Build Economic Opportunity
  5. Leading Through Networks

The actions outlined in the plan range from expanding pantries and food delivery programs to food education, to efforts to develop a sustainable local food source and a network of food supports.

The Players

The Capital Area Food Network is the local food council that contributed to development of the Wake County Food Security Action Plan and works with Wake County Government and other partners to implement the plan. The Community Food Lab, a local firm in Wake County, led the planning and development process for the action plan. The food security working group included members from Cooperative Extension, Human Services, and Wake County Public School System. Wake County government funded the action plan, and continues to host several resources including a Food Resource Locator map and a Food Security Analysis Story Map.

The Promise

The Wake County Food Security Plan follows a 3-year action and planning cycle, and has a goal of completing 41 action items and all five measurement indicators by 2020. Following three years of action, the plan will be evaluated and updated. The action plan provides a guide to stakeholders and related actions, and though the actions are outlined specifically for Wake County, the stakeholder guide and types of actions may be translatable for other counties or regions.

Other places in North Carolina can boast improvements in food distribution as well. A report for the Kate B Reynolds Charitable Trust outlined trends and best practices in food distribution systems, including food banks in Asheville and Charlotte, as well as Raleigh. The best practices include developing partnerships, improving coordination, focusing efforts on fresh produce, providing client choice, developing mobile and school pantries, distributing food equitably, using government programs, and encouraging cash donations. Food systems across the state may benefit from these best practices and the whole systems approach Wake County implemented. Many regions around the state have already created or are in the process of creating local food councils similar to the Capital Area Food Network.

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