Bon Appétit called Durham “America’s foodiest small town,” and Southern Living named us the “tastiest town in the South.” Awesome, and so well deserved. Give me an hour at Gocciolina or Watts Grocery, Toast or Scratch, La Superior or Banh’s, Nana’s or Salt Box, Cocoa Cinnamon or Rue Cler or Johnsons Family Barbeque, and so many more. That’s what makes me really happy.
But my happiness is deeply tempered by the fact that many people in Durham can’t afford to eat at most of those places. There are 50,000 people in Durham who are food insecure. Two-thirds of Durham Public Schools’ 33,000 students are eligible for a subsidized lunch. Durham is a prosperous city for most of us, but fully 20 percent of Durham’s people live in poverty – and poverty and food insecurity go hand in glove.
We’ve got to change that reality, and there are many good people in Durham working hard to do just that. End Hunger Durham has documented 70 food pantries in our city, many of them staffed by the volunteers at local churches. The Durham Farm and Food Network is connecting local farmers to the people here who need their food. Durham Public Schools is offering a universal free breakfast to thousands of students every day. The legion of devoted volunteers at Meals on Wheels is delivering a hot meal five days a week to 450 home-bound seniors. The Food Bank and the Interfaith Food Shuttle are providing food to thousands of people in Durham every month.
At the same time, there is a start-up food economy beginning to bubble to the surface in Durham. Bull City Cool is a local food hub for small companies to aggregate and distribute area farmers’ fresh food. Eastern Carolina Organics is an anchor business in East Durham. Our farmers markets are thriving – including the Green Flea Market on Pettigrew Street, one of Durham’s most interesting weekend stops during the summer months, where the Latino community gathers to sell and eat wonderful food.
I’m proud that the City of Durham’s Solid Waste Department is rolling out a pilot food recycling program that can save us tax dollars, lower our carbon footprint, create jobs and eventually provide mulch to our farmers and gardeners.
But we know that Durham can do much more. I support an idea that is gaining strong currency in Durham: Together, let’s create a model food system in our beloved city. Let’s become known as the city where we eat in the best restaurants, play the best basketball, get the best health care – and where we do the best job feeding all of our residents. Let’s provide the resources and coordinated strategy to end hunger in Durham. Let’s support our local farmers and create good jobs in the businesses and nonprofits driving this effort. Let’s create an economy around food security and food justice.
We are very fortunate that Duke University’s new World Food Policy Center is entering the fray locally. During the next year, the Center is taking on its first local project which is to work with Durham partners to improve early childhood nutrition in our city. The Center is a leading advocate of creating a model food system in Durham, and its leadership has offered to put the Center’s intellectual and financial resources behind this effort.
If I am fortunate enough to be elected as Durham’s next mayor, I will work with local advocates and community members to convene a Mayor’s Food Summit in Durham during the coming year. Out of this summit should come a coordinated strategy to build a model food system in Durham – one that will feed our hungry residents, support or local farmers, and create good jobs as we do so. Out of this summit, too, should come an understanding of the financial resources we will need to do this work and a plan to obtain those resources. Creating and implementing a coordinated strategy for a model food system in Durham will take staff, and I’ll be working with local partners to provide that staff support to our collective efforts.
I once served for nearly a decade on the board of directors of the Rural Advancement Fund, a South-wide organization that advocated for small farmers and food consumers. Fighting agri-business, we lost most of our battles. But this is Durham, so let’s take it local and win.
Durham City Councilman Steve Schewel is a candidate for mayor.