Turning the Westside into a locally-grown, fresh-food mecca for itself and the city is taking root thanks in part to the Food Well Alliance. The nonprofit’s Board Chair Bill Bolling brought the Food Well Alliance’s team to the 14th Transform Westside to explain what they’re doing and how it’s changing the Westside. “We want to create an honest and open dialogue about what’s possible on the Westside as it relates to food,” said Bolling. “We feel like food can be one of the transformational tools in this neighborhood, and we know that there are many things that we need to do.”
Bolling said the Food Well Alliance was formed early last year, in partnership with the Atlanta Community Food Bank (which he founded in 1979). “We have a strong focus on fresh food and healthy food through the Food Bank,” he said. “We feel like the healthier the food, the healthier the people are and the healthier the children are.”
On the Westside, the Atlanta Community Food Bank has 17 partner agencies in the 30314 zip code that distributed more than 700,000 pounds of food in the last year, and 19 partner agencies in 30318 that distributed more than 3 million pounds. “That work really represents us listening to the community,” said Bolling. “There are a lot of folks in need, and people out of work. In listening to the community, and talking to the congregations – what they were needing was food.”
Bolling also gave updates on Food Bank programs such as Kids in Need and The Prosperity Campaign. “We distribute school supplies free of charge to school teachers,” he said. “We have served 36 schools and over 300 teachers. And over 1,200 students have gotten supplies from the Food Bank. The Prosperity Campaign is where we’re helping people with benefits. We’ve brought in over $900,000 of economic impact by bringing those benefits into the neighborhood.”
Another successful program started with support from the Food Bank is Georgia Food Oasis that was first piloted on the Westside in 2013. “Great ways for people to come together around food, and focus on healthy food,” said Bolling. It’s a collaboration of 13 local organizations working together to help underserved Atlanta neighborhoods develop innovative and affordable ways to discover, taste and learn about food.
CONVENE, MOBILIZE AND PROMOTE
The latest Food Bank initiative is the Food Well Alliance that was launched to unite the local food movement. More than 100 urban farms and nearly 400 community gardens are in Metro Atlanta’s five core counties. Bolling said the Food Well Alliance provides local growers a place to share best practices and access resources in a collaborative way. “Our premise is that there’s plenty, and the more we help each other, the more fresh food we’ll have,” he said.
The Food Well Alliance has three ways it’s helping growers: As a Connector of people, ideas and resources that are working to build healthier communities with one thing in common – local food.
As a Promoter of leadership and innovation – to offer a “common table” for joining together and advancing common goals. As a Mobilizer through grants and capital – both human and financial – to invest in leaders, innovators and educators that are moving local food forward and strengthening our food system. “One of the things that we might imagine is the opportunity for the Westside,” said Bolling. “There’s no other place that I know of in the city like the Westside, in how much land we have available. One of the ways that we could be known on the Westside is a place to come to for locally-grown food.”
Bolling introduced Cicely Garrett, Food Systems Innovation Manager with Food Oasis. Food Oasis provides a platform and seed funding for the Atlanta community to share home grown ideas to improve local food access and food systems. “We ask the community to come up with the ideas about what they would change to get healthy and fresh food into their neighborhood,” said Garrett. “At the end of the day, it’s that you shouldn’t be limited to the access of the food you’d like to eat just because of your zip code.” One idea that came out of the community is an event called Potluck & Pitch – where five different innovators present their pitches for improving local food access and food systems in Atlanta. “We still have things in process at all times, and we’re always open to hearing what people have available to them.”
The next team member to present was the Atlanta Community Food Bank’s new President and CEO Kyle Waide. “The Food Bank serves 29 counties in Metro Atlanta and North Georgia, and in those 29 counties, the cost of food security amounts to around 3 billion dollars per year in incremental costs to our region,” said Waide. “There are 900,000 folks across 29 counties who are food insecure, and those 900,000 folks encounter greater negative health outcomes around diabetes and higher blood pressure.”
EXPANSION AND INNOVATION
Waide said the Food Bank has created a 10-year plan to step up its efforts to ensure that all hungry people in its service area have access to the nutritious meals that they need, when they need them. “We’re going to dramatically grow the scale, and breadth, and depth of our core food distribution work,” he said. “So this year we will distribute some 70 million pounds of food across North Georgia and Metro Atlanta. By 2025, we imagine that to be somewhere around 145 or 150 million pounds of food.” He said the goal is to have 35 percent of that food be fresh produce that is grown locally. “That’s 50 million pounds of fresh produce that we aspire to distribute by 2025.”
The Food Bank’s second goal is expanding and increasing nutrition programs and hunger policies. “You’ll see us continue to do that through the Prosperity Campaign to help low and moderate income families connect with benefit programs like food stamps and WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children). You’ll see us work with schools to make school breakfast participation rates go way up, and have that access be much more available to more kids. You’re going to see us work on hunger policies like WIC, like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), to help make these programs more successful, more accessible, more available to the folks that they are intended to serve.”
Waide said the third goal is helping families move from crisis to stability by engaging with the Food Bank’s partners and clients. “So more folks can self provide the food that they need.” While he said these plans are ambitious, he’s excited about the Food Well Alliance and how it will help the Food Bank meet its goals. “The Food Bank has a long history of innovation and experimentation. The Food Well Alliance is looking at urban agriculture and community gardening as a way to provide more food, and build the infrastructure of systems throughout our community.”
STRIKE UP A CONVERSATION
Heading up the Food Bank’s support for community gardens is Fred Conrad. “There are a bunch of Community Gardens in this community, and the cool thing is they are all so unique and so different because the people that are doing them have different ideas about what they want to get out of it.” He said the Good Sam Urban Farm focuses on nutrition and giving people a better diet to improve their health. The Friends of English Avenue have two gardens – one on Lowery and the other on Elm. He said they took vacant lots that were eyesores and turned them into some of the most beautiful spots in the city. “When you walk up to them, you have this big emotional reaction to them,” he said. “They want people to be proud of the neighborhood.”
Other gardens are about community participation or making a living. “The Historic Westside Garden, its angle is entrepreneurship,” said Conrad. “You’ve got all this land. You’ve got all this space. You’ve got all this potential – so let’s make some money.” He said he’s seen a number of gardens come and go, but he doesn’t consider them failures. “They were all amazing gardens with amazing people. They served a terrific purpose that impacted a lot of lives, and they moved on to other things – maybe bigger and better things.”
“I think community gardening is the best thing in the world for interacting with the people in the neighborhood,” he said. “In the garden, it’s so easy to strike up a conversation.”
Collaboration Program Manager Wesley Myrick said his job at the Food Well Alliance is to get people at the table to figure out their directives, align their priorities and act strategically. “That’s what I do from day to day,” he said. “Is to understand those challenges and help mitigate them through collaboration.” One of their initiatives is a leadership development and training program that gets garden leaders to create systems that help their gardens be a success. “Additionally in 2015, we had an initiative called Healthy Soil, Healthy Community. It essentially was designed to make certain that community gardens across the five county region had access to healthy soil, because we know that communities can’t grow healthy food if they don’t have healthy soil.”
The Food Well Alliance also provides access to money through grants for local food related concepts. “Our vision at the Food Well Alliance is to see locally grown food in the hands of everyone,” said Kim Karris, Food Well Alliance Grant & Community Capital Manager. “There are people working across the local food system – local farms and farming enterprises. But there are also people working on value-added processing – like turning those tomatoes into salsa – working on distribution to make sure that food gets to market, all the way to the educators who are teaching our children and our young adults how to grow food and how to eat healthy. And of course food waste and composting, and making sure that food is recovered and put back into our soil to make sure it’s healthy.”
Karris said their grant making process looks at organizations across the five county area that are strengthening the food system. She outlined the three approaches they take to provide funding. The first is the Food Well Alliance’s annual grants where its given out more than $500,000 in the last two years. The second supports collaborative design initiatives. “We get several organizations together to design a solution to a challenge to growing local food and getting local food into our institutions.” The third is providing support for those organizations that look promising, but still need help to make their concept a reality. “We are excited to be able to make these investments,” said Karris. “We realize that in order to grow this local food movement, we are going to have to provide capital and strategic investments into those people that are doing that across the five counties.”
Ellen Macht, an advisor to the Food Well Alliance and Project Manager for Better Life Growers, explained how growing lettuce and herbs helps employ 45 local residents. “We’re working with the neighborhood to build facilities, greenhouses, a packing facility that will enable us to provide this local food that everybody is looking for because we don’t have enough sources of supply,” she said. “A million and a half pounds of lettuce and herbs that we’re going to grow that will be distributed throughout the communities, and most importantly, we’re going to sell it. The idea is bringing together the community around food – that food is a transformational tool.”
Food Well Alliance Content Curator Anamarie Shreeves said its website is a central resource for the local food movement in Metro Atlanta showing events and news for all the organizations it supports. “We’re working to tell a story on a global level,” she said. “Being able to tell that story for someone who is in the neighborhood to get access to a community garden or an upcoming event. But then we have the ability to share stories about what we’re finding in the local food movement and sharing that so anyone from Kentucky to India can see what is going on in Atlanta’s local urban agriculture movement.”
“We’re committed to storytelling,” said Bolling. “The numbers are important – but it’s the stories that change hearts and minds, that give people a vision of what’s possible.”
For more information about the Food Well Alliance, contact Nadirah Ali at firstname.lastname@example.org.