Photo: Bull City Cool

Food. Such a simple word. So simple to understand that food is critical to our survival, and yet such a complicated topic interwoven with economics, societal pressures, nutrition, the environment, science, placemaking, health, politics. And as big as these concepts are, they aren’t the whole picture. Food touches everything in our lives.

When a wide range of Americans voters were polled about the food system in fall 2015 the number one issue identified was that “all Americans don’t have equal access to healthy, affordable food.”

Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman and other noteworthy food thinkers have recently called for a National Food Policy, and the new Plate of the Union Campaign, sponsor of the poll and profiled in this Civil Eats article, is coordinating an effort between food and agriculture groups to influence candidates running for president.

According to the campaign:

Most Americans don’t have to look further than their own families to find someone whose health has been impacted by diet-related illness. More than two out of three American adults is either overweight or obese, as are one third of children ages 6 to 19. Four of the top 10 leading causes of death domestically are influenced by diet: 1. coronary heart disease; 2. cancer; 3. stroke; and 7. diabetes. Even worse, we’re barreling toward 2.7 billion overweight adults worldwide by 2025, and the ‘Western diet’ is named as a cause.

Americans want more than just nutrition lip service; they want meaningful policy action. According to the poll, their top priority for changing the food system is to make healthy foods more affordable. Fifty-three percent of those polled agreed that ‘we need to change policies so that we make healthy and nutritious foods more affordable for every American, regardless of their zip code.'”

As promising as the idea of national policy redirection may be, local food activists aren’t waiting for change at that level. Many groups, non-profits, agencies, companies and individuals are forging ahead, revising the Triangle food scene on the ground and bettering the entire community with every step they take.

One recent success story of increasing access to healthy, affordable food is the Geer Street Food Corridor in Durham. Located between North Mangum and North Roxboro streets, it’s a living laboratory of “food systems thinking” translated into community development action.

Its interlocking elements stand alone and yet support each other:

  • A food hub, Bull City Cool, houses two non-profit food distributors and supports the cold storage and packing needs of other local food businesses;
  • Inter-Faith Food Shuttle farms an urban agriculture site;
  • And a healthy corner store is supported by the Partnership for a Healthy Durham and the Durham Health Department.

The driver behind all of these elements, and the developer of the food hub, is Durham’s Reinvestment Partners, guided by Executive Director Peter Skillern. Through traditional real estate development, innovative collaborations and a visionary sense of purpose that connects neighborhood impact with lasting policy and systems changes, Skillern provided the will and capacity to create these urban food opportunities.

Skillern refined his vision through the work and guidance of Erin White, founder of Raleigh’s Community Food Lab, a hybrid design practice inventing new approaches to healthy food systems.

White describes food systems thinking, an iteration of design thinking, as an umbrella term to describe the creation of a healthy food system. It encompasses two ideas:

  1. All food system projects, from a community garden to a food hub to a farmers market, can be seen as tools that each bring their own mix of social, economic, and ecological benefits. If you understand how each of these ‘tools’ work, anyone working to create healthy communities can match particular tools to the needs of their community.
  2. Since a healthy food system is dependent on everyone’s willingness to contribute to it, participation is one of the most important goals in achieving food system health.

Defining the terms is important. According to White:

  • A food system is the “set of interconnected people, policies, infrastructures, and activities that provide people with food, from the farm to the table.”
  • A healthy food system provides “all people with a reliable supply of nutritious food, and does so in a way that is sustainable and inclusive of all people’s needs. A healthy food system is often local, but not always.”
  • A local food system is “measured by close proximity from the end consumer; that is, all of the food system parts would be within a certain distance to be considered local. Local food systems typically have a greater diversity of players and organizations involved; have strong relationships that create a resilient network of products and knowledge, transparency of provenance and handling; a generally closer connection between consumers and the land that produces the food; and shorter transportation needs that can increase freshness, nutrition, and energy sustainability.”

Image: Community Food Lab

White began working with Skillern in 2012, spurred by a meeting to discuss White’s master’s thesis and how to achieve the ideas within it through Reinvestment Partners’ work.

White’s description of the process:

“We looked at the two or three blocks around their Geer Street offices; he explained what they had already accomplished, and what he saw as next steps. Through really creative exchanges and a few drawings of what the neighborhood could look like, we started to develop an idea of using food system concepts to drive the community development work on the block.

At that time, this neighborhood had a number of boarded-up houses, broken sidewalks, and other signs of blight. The Express Mart had a rusting and sagging front canopy, heavy iron bars on all the windows, and a wallpapering of cigarette and alcohol posters. Reinvestment Partners had made first steps in revitalization by converting a derelict building into their offices, and TROSA had established a few well-kept group and transitional homes in the neighborhood. Bright spots were appearing, but in 2012 it was still a rough area of town.

We began with an overall vision for the neighborhood, and from there quickly started designing a city-funded facade improvement for the Express Mart, which would become the healthy corner store. I worked with the store operator, the building, owner, and Peter to provide interior and exterior improvement ideas to guide the renovation. In the following year, through my connection to the Partnership for a Healthy Durham and a contract with the Community Transformation Grant, I was able to connect the store to the Durham Health Department to start thinking about a healthy corner store here.

On our next project together, from spring 2012 until summer 2013, I acted as the construction project manager for a renovation project at 1201 North Roxboro Street, turning an abandoned house into new office space. This was an important project even though it wasn’t food-related, resulting in a valuable change to the neighborhood.


Photo: Bull City Cool

As the 1201 North Roxboro project wound down, Peter started putting pieces together for the major element of the Geer Street Food Corridor: a food hub at the corner of Geer and North Mangum. I worked with Jen Walker of Poeisis Land Design to write a feasibility study for the food hub that we completed in December 2013. With this in hand, Reinvestment Partners had the confidence to move ahead with site control, tenant identification, architectural drawings and building renovation. By early 2015 the first tenants had moved in, and by summer 2015 the food hub, now named Bull City Cool, was fully occupied.

The main question Skillern and White were answering: can food system thinking drive urban design and community development?

As expected, the answer, like food itself, is complicated.

Their first step was to create a plan, a food system vision for the neighborhood. It included a series of large and small moves to maintain momentum while providing broader goals. Three years after that initial plan, each of the major elements is complete.

White was quick to emphasize the power of partnership, and the critical need for capital and resources.

“While the design thinking and food system ideas are important in figuring this out, they are really only intentions until the will and capacity to make them happen are found. The real, tangible projects that create a food system require capital, effective project planning, and strong collaborations in order to succeed. If these elements can be found, there is then the opportunity to include innovative thinking about how food helps create a healthy community.

In the Geer Street project, Reinvestment Partners brought the will to change the neighborhood, the capital and resources to drive development, time to convene and coordinate partners, and the expertise to keep these pieces together. Community Food Lab brought the concept, project planning consulting, design and the key ideas that have continued to inform Reinvestment Partners’ thinking on healthy food systems.”

With so many entities involved, White described Skillern’s role as a “single effective director” to provide clear roles and responsibilities to share the work without duplicating efforts and avoiding potential conflicts. Whether held by one or two entities, the developer role and the coordinator role are essential for success in any project.

Perhaps the most visible success is Reinvestment Partners’ crown jewel of the project – the Bull City Cool food hub. It repurposed an old Gulf gas and service station1 to serve as an aggregator for consumers and groups wanting to buy and/or redistribute local farm-fresh veggies. Winner of the Triangle Community Foundation’s 2015 Innovation Award, Bull City Cool provides cool and cold storage for Durham businesses.

Building on its experience, Community Food Lab is working to make the successful Geer Street process replicable. While each community is unique, White explained the distinction between the differences each project will bring vs. the principles that drive it.

“If you can capture the principles, and capture the ‘how’ of a project, you can build the same kinds of outcomes in a different place, building on what makes that place unique. The methods and design principles behind the Geer Street Food Corridor are absolutely replicable, and yet they absolutely reflect the uniqueness of that place and community. In another place, the outcomes would be different based on community assets, people involved, and the many other parameters of community development.”

Food systems thinking is about innovation, inclusivity, creativity and big ideas, but in the end it’s simple: building healthy cities, and healthy people. No election required.

  1. The video showing a truck pulling off the siding during demolition is pretty cool
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