Hungry for Change: PPI tackles hunger in WNC

The Public Policy Institute (PPI) at Western Carolina University held a WNC Food Policy Council Interest Meeting on July 30, to determine the community need for a Far West North Carolina Local Food Policy Council.

The Public Policy Institute is “a nonprofit, nonpartisan, independent research and outreach organization” that is “here to generate effective public policy responses and alternatives to important political, administrative and social problems affecting Western North Carolina” and fosters “collaboration between University resources, faculty and student participation and community partners,” as stated on the meeting’s slideshow presentation.

Representing PPI was undergraduate assistant Emily Elders, a Jackson County native who “has worked with local governments, businesses and nonprofits on environmental projects and policy, events and fundraising and development, and is a former small business owner,” according to the PPI “Meet the Staff” page on WCU’s website. Elders studies social philosophy and policy at WCU.

Also representing PPI was Dr. Todd Collins, an assistant professor in the political science department and interim director of the Public Policy Institute. Collins relayed the goals of PPI to the group of people in attendance, which included representatives of MANNA FoodBank, the Sylva Community Garden, the WCU Center for Service Learning, the N.C. Department of Agriculture and the Jackson County Department of Social Services.

“We are here tonight to generate ideas about working together,” said Collins. “This idea of people in the same field cooperating together to solve problems arose at the Poverty Forum. PPI provides consultation to solve problems in WNC. The Food Policy Council is not a Western or PPI program, but one to better everyone in the region. Our goals are to get you guys talking to each other.”

Elders elaborated on the impact that the Global Poverty Project Forum, part of the yearlong WCU Poverty Project, had on making the Food Policy Council Interest Meeting possible.

“[At the Poverty Forum] almost twenty agencies were represented. Economic development and poverty were deemed the most pressing problems,” said Elders. “What came out of that are that problems that people face are lack of communications and competition between agencies. There is a significant need for long-term plans over short-term fixes. We brought people here to see about interest in a council that focuses on food and security, both of which are becoming a generational problem in WNC.”

After the introductions, the group discussed many of the concerns that they have in the process of getting food out to the hungry in this region. These concerns included the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. This Act intends to ensure that the food supply is safe by shifting the focus of federal regulators from responding to contamination to preventing it. Along with policy, other problems of diminishing food resources, transportation issues and communication barriers were raised by the group of interested community food growers and suppliers, which included the Fishes and Loaves Food Pantry in Cashiers, The Community Kitchen in Canton and United Christian Ministries.

“People can’t get the transportation to get to the markets to use their senior coupons or food stamps,” said one attendee about problems providing food to the hungry. “The markets are publicized, but the people can’t get to the markets.”

“There are a lot of shared kitchens in the far west counties, said another attendee. “Farmers and smaller kitchens don’t have the capacity.”

Of these concerns, many were grouped together to better tackle problems if and when a Far West North Carolina Local Food Policy Council is created. These include storage/processing/distribution, land use and policy, farmers and jobs (including economic development) and education and outreach.

Some of these issues may end up involving Western Carolina University and its students. One of these is the fact that along highways in North Carolina, the government chooses to grow beautiful flowers instead of food-producing plants. The same goes for WCU.

“Local governments promote beautiful flower planting on sides of highways, yet why can’t we pass policies that plant things that produce food. Municipalities should be planting food over pretty flowers. Even WCU, working with Aramark to have food producing plants over crepe myrtles,” said one area farmer.

“The potential for this region to be food sovereign is high and by using asset mapping – what land we have, how we use it, how we can use it better – will help us get there,” responded Elders.

Towards the end of the meeting, a big issue was raised over the awareness that food shortage in this area was low in young people and how that can be changed.

“There is an abundance of yellow squash and young people don’t know that they can’t put it in the freezer for later. The young people I meet in my profession don’t care about what they have for tomorrow, just then and there,” said a representative of the Jackson County Social Services.

It was also pointed out that there are classes on canning and community gardens available, but the people who take them and participate are the ones who do not really need it, who can probably go out and buy food themselves. The group reached an agreement that people have to want to learn to help themselves at some point.

Although nutrition education is very expensive, none could deny that it is needed, especially for young people. A bill that mimics the recent the mandatory CPR training bill that Governor Bev Perdue signed into law is what the state needs, especially in the west, where over 100,000 people in 16 counties are food insecure and the charitable fight for hunger is in a weakened state.

During the close of the interest meeting, the two goals of the Food Policy Council were formulated. The first goal is defined as to work to end food shortage in the long-term. The second is to strengthen the local economy to create jobs and foster economic growth.

Elders did mention that one of the first projects that should be undertaken is an in-depth statistical project on the seven westernmost counties to paint a more accurate portrait of what is being dealt with.

“That is where PPI comes in,” said Elders, who acknowledged that PPI works with organizations like Humboldt State, the Asheville-Buncombe Food Policy Council, the USDA, the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Appalachian Foodshed Project to better serve the region.

For now, the Council, which currently has no official members, will plan another meeting for next month, where they will begin to officially combine their forces in an effort to eradicate hunger in Western North Carolina.