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Research Brief: North Carolina Food System Resilience Strategy

Published: January 2022
Authors: Duke World Food Policy Center: Jennifer Zuckerman, Jack Daly, Gizem Templeton, Ali Conrad, Nicole Lococo, Sara Darwish, Elizabeth Towell, and Deborah Hill; Center for Environmental Farming Systems: Abbey E. Piner, J. Dara Bloom, Andrew R. Smolski, Jamilla Hawkins, Tiera George, Erin Van Fleet, Andrea Padilla Guerrero, Robyn Stout, Tessa Thraves, Josie Walker, and Janie Hynson; North Carolina Food Resilience Advisory Board: Camryn Smith, Communities in Partnership; Ryan Bethea, Oysters Carolina; William Booth, Alpha Life Enrichment Center; Georie Bryant, Communities in Partnership; Savi Horne, Land Loss Prevention Project; George Jones; Randolph Keaton, Men and Women United for Youth and Families, CDC; Ruth McDowell, Edgecombe County Public Schools; Chanel Nestor, NC State Extension; Cecilia Polanco, So Good Pupusas/Pupusas for Education; Chester Williams, A Better Chance A Better Community; Juanita Wilson, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians; Der Holcomb, NC Cooperative Extension – Alexander County Center; Marcus Hill, Island CulturZ; Davon Goodwin, Sandhills AG Innovation Center; Jesalyn Keziah, UNC American Indian Center

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Cover Image - NC Food System Resilience Stratey

This strategy brief focuses on North Carolina and contextualizes the current moment against the historical landscape. The audience for this project is philanthropy. As a group with substantial power, it asks how philanthropy can be a partner to address some of the most entrenched inequities. How, in other words, can philanthropy help create more equity and resiliency in the North Carolina food system?

COVID-19’s effect on the food system has been complex. Despite the pandemic’s initial shock to supply chains, the system has largely functioned as intended. Yet that is not necessarily a relief for many, who have experienced harm from embedded inequities. While the dislocations associated with the pandemic have been felt broadly, we believe it is important to foreground the negative effects on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) individuals and communities. This is partly the legacy of cultural and policy decisions that have created an inequitable food system.

During COVID-19, millions of Americans lost jobs or had hours reduced, and demand for food assistance spiked across the country. Food banks distributed 50% more food in 2020 compared with 2019, and US government spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) increased more than 48% from $60.3 billion in the 2019 fiscal year to $89.6 billion in 2020.

Changing the food system is difficult to imagine. Power often resides in the hands of actors who operate on a global scale. The report begins by defining food systems and providing historical context for how the food system came to be. Yet there are pathways forward. We believe community-rooted organizations already have ideas that can help chart a new course.

Findings: North Carolina Philanthropy

We present a summary of how the NC philanthropic community engages with the food system. This summation was developed through surveys and interviews of members of the North Carolina Network of Grantmakers to identify the strategies of in-state organizations. These research instruments allowed us to recognize five findings:

  1. NC philanthropic organizations focus on food insecurity with emergency food aid that aligns with the Charity Framework.
  2. Most NC organizations have a limited footprint in other aspects of the food system.
  3. Increased flexibility with program funds and devoting additional resources to fight food insecurity were the most common responses to COVID-19.
  4. Equity considerations are increasingly important, although many organizations are still determining how best to articulate their strategies.
  5. There is a spirit of cooperation among NC funders, but not necessarily concrete collaborative structures or collective leadership.

Interventions designed to address issues in the food system can be interpreted through various frameworks. The most common paradigm—the Charity Framework—is first and foremost about helping those in need.

While we believe charity plays a valuable role, it does not address the systemic features that contribute to food insecurity. The persistence of various metrics reinforces the idea that current approaches are not addressing the root of the problem.

Moreover, the Charity Framework has been criticized for maintaining many of the ills it has sought to remedy. Specifically, the model reinforces a system of oppression in at least three ways:

  1. it reproduces white supremacy culture narratives;
  2. it is reactive and short-term; and
  3. it creates unintended consequences that reinforce existing inequalities.

Findings: Focus Group Feedback

Focus group participants brought together for this project, representing communities across NC, described experiences with these and other roadblocks. Many represent predominantly rural and BIPOC communities and have extensive experience in grant-seeking and funding relationships at the local, state, and national levels.

The focus group participants expressed a desire to develop new relationships with philanthropy that are grounded in trust and build justice, equity, and resilience into community food systems. Trust is perhaps the key word to use to characterize breakdowns between the organizations participating in the focus groups and philanthropy. There is a lack of trust that is both felt and perceived by the focus group participants, and influences many of the individual findings. These include:

  • The prevalence of white supremacy culture in grantmaking. Throughout each of the four focus group discussions, community leaders expressed concerns with the racial history of philanthropic organizations. Philanthropy, in many minds, represents white wealth, privilege, and power built on the land and labor of others. In the current socio-political climate, funders are taking more interest in addressing the histories of the individuals and families who have donated to (or founded) their organizations. While this reckoning might be difficult, community leaders hope there is recognition that the legacy of many historic funders in North Carolina have long been painful for their communities.
  • Transactional relationships and mistrust characterize the relationship. Local leaders believe the relationship with philanthropy is often transactional, and that funders undervalue the work being done in the community. Participants feel philanthropy emphasizes a return on investment over the development and growth of the community.
  • Perceived flaws in the grantmaking process. Participants advocated for a simplified grantmaking process. When applying for grants, many felt the costs associated with the process—whether time, effort, or financial— were not worth the potential benefits. There was a long list of items that repeatedly caused stress:
  1. applying for grants and not receiving the requested amount;
  2. difficulties associated with reporting evaluation elements, especially for smaller, BIPOC-led community organizations;
  3. lack of flexibility in the grantmaking process; and
  4. inaccessible language in the application process for Native and non-Native speakers.

New Pathways Forward

A multi-pronged approach to systems change would achieve better outcomes for communities. There are different strategies; however, we emphasize the merits of two related concepts:

The Innovative Framework: In contrast to the Charity Framework, the Innovative Framework is oriented toward justice and equity. The framework emphasizes the root causes of inequality. Food insecurity is viewed as structural injustice as opposed to a consequence of individual decisions or a lack of initiative on the part of BIPOC communities. In other words, it is understood that the whole system privileges certain groups and produces the problems that philanthropy intervenes to address. Solving those problems requires addressing the systems themselves, not the individuals within the systems.

Community Food Systems: Global food systems play a critical role in feeding the planet’s population. But power regularly resides in multinational corporations and multilateral institutions that are outside the reach of local actors and the NC philanthropic community. Community food systems operate on a different scale. In many respects, philanthropy is already working with individuals and actors who are seeking to build systems rooted in the community. These organizations embrace many aspects of the Innovative Framework and are centered on simple ideas: 1) communities can nourish themselves physically, economically, and environmentally; and 2) they know what they need and have the power, capacity, and influence to transform lives.

Critical Action Recommendations

The Critical Actions named in this report are the result of a year-long process, led by food justice leaders from rural, urban, and peri-urban communities across North Carolina. While we envision a just, resilient, and equitable network of locally controlled community food systems in North Carolina, we wish to emphasize that no individual funder nor organization will be able to achieve that vision by themselves. The effort must be collective.

Prior literature has identified six interdependent conditions that allow social or environmental problems to fester. Shifting any of the six can create space for change to occur. The Critical Actions described in this report are designed to work across different levels and conditions. The actions will require time, capacity building, relationship building, and capital. They will take trust and relationships, and change will be slow― we envision 5-10 years at a minimum.

Many recommendations are building new systems across philanthropy, academia, government, and community. All of the recommendations address the shifts in decision making, leadership, and funding that have been, for the most part, historically left out of the community food system in North Carolina.

Critical Action Estimated Investment Needed Over 10 Years

  • Formalize and invest in a statewide BIPOC-led, community-accountable Food Justice Network $26.75M
  • Establish a Statewide Equitable Food Oriented Development Fund and Equitable Food Oriented Development Network $17.5M
  • Create/Expand Community Participatory Grant Funding for Grassroots Food Systems Work in North Carolina $12M
  • Create a Statewide Tribal Food Sovereignty Fund $30.5M
  • Create a North Carolina Black Food and Farm Advocacy Network and Statewide Fund for Black Food and Agriculture $9.25 M
  • Create an Agricultural Worker Equity, Access, and Advocacy Fund and Expand an Agricultural Workforce Network Development $9.5M
  • Create a Food Justice Learning Network for North Carolina Funders Working Across the Food System $800,000K