Partner in the Spotlight: Community Food Lab
Possible components of an urban food corridor.
An urban food corridor: this concept is an emerging one in a few cities around the country, but AHA partner Community Food Lab, located in Raleigh, is helping to propel the idea forward locally.
Sounds interesting, but what is it? The Raleigh Food Corridor is a proposed community-based project along two miles of Blount St. and Person St. in downtown Raleigh that links communities through local food. “The great thing about local food is its ability to affect everybody positively; it brings economic opportunity and healthy food access, helps create a healthy physical environment, and increases civic engagement,” according to Erin Sullivan White, founder and principal of Community Food Lab. “Through all these different benefits, individual communities can find value for whatever it is that matters to them.”
The idea is to foster civic engagement using local food as a toolkit that can respond at different levels—from front-yard gardens to small businesses to city-level projects for food distribution. “All those different scales will bring benefits to the community around them and the people involved,” he added.
The original idea for the Raleigh Food Corridor came out of collective conversations beginning in 2012. Over the last 8 months, Community Food Lab has been working to build momentum behind it, with the goal of gathering a broad, diverse group of stakeholders and participants that add their voices to this open-source project.
This image, courtesy of Community Food Lab, illustrates clustering of local food concerns.
Raleigh City Farm is located at one end of the Corridor, and the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle’s Hoke Street Training Center is at the other end. The strategic location of these successful, innovative projects sparked the corridor idea, according to White, but as he and others looked more closely they found many other local food assets also in place. The Raleigh Downtown Farmers Market, numerous restaurants celebrating Farm to Table cooking, home gardens, and Marbles Kids Museum with a teaching garden for young children…these are all local food projects helping define the corridor.
White said if you think of the benefits of local food as a toolkit for change, then the idea of clustering food projects enables communities to connect their own diverse needs with particular benefits. Communities can use local food projects for a wide range of positive outcomes. “And once that process is in place, you start to create opportunities for everyone to plug in how ever it makes sense for them, and you also create an opportunity for dialogue about food and about how food matters to a neighborhood, city or region,” White said.
Developing a Food System
With successful local food projects already clustering along the proposed Raleigh Food Corridor, White said the “bones” are in place and the foundational energy and knowledge are all there. One outcome of the community-based corridor process would be to multiply existing energy and work towards a complete, collaborative food system along the corridor that includes production, distribution, food processors, new small food businesses such as food trucks and local grocers, community composting sites and more consumption of healthy, local food.
The community’s own ideas will drive the eventual shape of the Raleigh Food Corridor, but if a whole food system can be integrated into the city’s physical environment, three important things happen, according to White:
1) Food behaviors and choices of people who live and work in that place can change, by simply going about their daily activities, passing by healthy growing spaces, and learning (or re-learning) where our food comes from.
2) A healthy urban food system, even if it’s small, will support the larger regional food system. For example, if many restaurants in downtown Raleigh demand local food because customers want it, they will need to go beyond the corridor to greater Raleigh, Wake County and the regional farmers. As demand and interest increases, the movement started on the corridor will have outward positive effects.
3) Community action and collaborative work are encouraged by new social and economic opportunities, small and large, in all parts of the food system.
Who’s Involved and What’s Next?
About 30 engaged stakeholders, from organizations to individuals, and city staff to businesses, have been engaged in discussions about the food corridor concept, with Community Food Lab organizing planning meetings over the last year. Most recently the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation has joined the conversation. The Hahn Foundation sees opportunity in the food corridor’s potential to spark civic engagement and action around food policy, combat food insecurity, and serve as a tool to develop leaders. In fact, the Raleigh Food Corridor will be the central topic an upcoming Hahn Foundation Gathering for Good event, a forum for generating ideas and discussion.
Existing urban agriculture projects are essential pieces of the Corridor’s success. These organizations are constantly connecting with the community, and introducing many people to the benefits of local and urban food. The Food Shuttle’s Hoke Street Training Center, for instance, uses diverse methods to increase food security in Southeast Raleigh, including urban food production and ag training. Its 6-month Urban Ag Internship program, beginning this month, is aimed at teaching low-wealth residents the agricultural skills to grow their own food and even start agricultural enterprises.
To date, White said that the main challenge has been working on the concept as a speculative project without funds to move the work forward at a high pace, or reach out as effectively as they could. Messaging around this new concept has also been challenging, but stakeholders launched the new www.RaleighFoodCorridor.org website last week as a tool to help explain the idea, invite people to participate and provide ways to get involved.
Stakeholders will continue outreach and engagement this summer, which White said he hopes will lead to a community-based design and discovery effort that can inform how the corridor grows and invests in itself. “That would come out of a participatory process with as many community voices as possible,” White said. “Any big vision of the Raleigh Food Corridor has to be balanced with community engagement and community direction so that it works for everyone.”