Capital Region Food Collaborative seeks to improve food access

Earlier this month, around 60 individuals representing over 35 nonprofits and businesses, gathered to discuss localizing the food system and increasing access to nutritious food for Richmond region residents as part of the Capital Region Food Collaborative.

FeedMore CEO Doug Pick looks out over a room of local food advocates, non-profit leaders, and elected officials. He’s facilitating the first-ever meeting of the Capital Region Food Collaborative in a conference room at FeedMore’s headquarters. Many of these faces are new to Pick, but not to one another, as they’ve been working side by side in many cases for years. Pick makes it clear from the outset that he’s there, not to represent the interests of FeedMore, but as a “nut for collaboration” who has no personal stake in the proceedings. He takes off his suit coat as he addresses the room, joking that now that he’s proved ownership of one, he can set it aside.

Over the next few hours, Pick introduces the concept of the Capital Region Food Collaborative itself as well as the approximately 60 participants representing over 35 organizations, briefly, to one another. It’s meant to be a starting point for discussion and, ultimately, action around the issues of food access and hunger in the region surrounding the City of Richmond, including the town of Ashland, and the Counties of Charles City, Chesterfield, Goochland, Hanover, Henrico, Powhatan, and New Kent. Prior to this meeting, an exploratory committee of nine experts convened to give the group its loose structure, guiding tenants, and working mission. The committee included Pick as well as Dominic Barrett of Shalom Farms, Deputy Director of the Richmond Health Department Danny Avula, and Richmond Regional Planning District Commission Senior Planner Anne Darby.

“The CRFC can claim two sources for its genesis,” explains Anne Darby, who also serves part-time as the Food Policy Coordinator for Richmond City. “The first was a recommendation to the Capital Region Collaborative (CRC), a public-private partnership between the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce and the Richmond Regional Planning District Commission.” The CRC work group sought practical answers for ways to improve the region from the ground up. The recommendations from the CRC were aimed at eliminating redundancies and increasing collaboration around key issues.

The second source for the CRFC was demand within the food community itself, which has seen previous attempts, such as the Richmond Area Food System Council in 2008 and the Richmond Food Policy Task Force in 2011-13, to address food security in a meaningful way. Darby describes, “In conversations and meetings among individuals involved in food advocacy work, several consistent themes arose: curiosity about what other organizations are doing, lack of communication among organizations doing similar work, multiple organizations applying for the same grants, and so on.”

The ambitious but earnest mission of the CRFC is, “to build a healthy community by working collaboratively to ensure consistent access to and consumption of nutritious food for all.” Each word in the mission is specific and intentional, having been painstakingly deliberated by the exploratory committee, but the most important of them is ‘collaboratively.’ While many of these participants have been working on improving food security in and around Richmond parallel to one another for years, Darby and others believe that they can best achieve their goals by joining forces: “It’s a way we can be larger than the sum of our parts,” Darby explains.

Doug Pick cautions the group to leave professional agendas at the door in order to work better together, echoing Darby’s sentiment: “The first thing you have to do is make a choice. You have to represent your own organization, and of course you can’t suspend that, but you have to look for opportunities where joining with others gets more done than working alone.”

The primary guiding tenet of the group states, “When in doubt, be inclusive.” And though the initial meeting brought an impressive number of players to the table, including grocers, market coordinators, elected officials, and at least one farmer; the consensus among break-out groups was that other food producers, restaurateurs, and educators must have a voice in the discussion as well.

For Pick, who spent years as a corporate executive for companies like Capital One and IBM, collaboration on this scale has three significant advantages: First, by combining voices, the CRFC can make more of an impact in the community and at the state level. When several non-profits compete for attention on related issues, clarity and emphasis can suffer. The CRFC will provide a means to change that.

Another important factor is improving efficiency through scale. Because many of the participants in the CRFC share goals and needs, opportunities to share resources are inevitable. If the group is successful in working together, they can improve, rather than deplete, these resources. The third piece has to do with funding: “for the last five years or so there’s been an emphasis from major funders [for organizations] to come together and make the effort collaboratively.” Major funders are now more likely to support projects that draw on the strengths of several related organizations in a group, rather than funding smaller projects from the individual organizations themselves.

Pick sees potential funders like stockholders, who are interested in seeing that their money is being used wisely. He brings a corporate mentality to the process, encouraging the group to create measurable benchmarks for success along the way in order to drive personal accountability, create efficient and effective efforts, and give participants a sense of accomplishment: “Good people like to be publicly accountable because they do good work. If you set your measurements and goals up and do good work, which is your intention, you can talk about that. It it creates a great sense of pride and drives the right kind of efforts, efficient efforts…That’s just good business discipline.” Pick says people are hungry for collaboration in business and politics. “We want to lead the community in showing that collaboration will work.”

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After breakout sessions, the entire group meets again to recap and discuss future meetings. The energy in the room after just an hour of working around a table together is palpable. James Wallace, with Virginia Community Capital, a source of financing for economic and community development, is encouraged by what he’s seen: “We want to be at the table during discussions on food system localization and food access to help the development and expansion of potential food based businesses.” VCC’s Virginia Fresh Food Loan Fund is one of the very resources that other CRFC participants could directly benefit from, and James sees these meetings as a way to spread the word about it and other funding sources through the community.

Anne Darby rattles off a handful of examples in which the two short hours of collaboration yielded promising results: “One organization told another about a grant they offer, about which the second organization didn’t know and was eligible for. An impromptu meeting between new partners who hadn’t met before took place immediately after the meeting. We started thinking of what we can do as a local food system–identifying gaps and resources to fill them. And a person with extensive food system knowledge who just moved to Richmond was able to attend, start contributing, and meet the majority of food system players in one place.”

CRFC participant Ruthie Morrison with Active RVA, the region-wide initiative to improve quality of life for all Richmonders through active living, sees the value in making system-wide policy changes as they relate to food access and public health: “The Richmond region is moving through some important changes right now. I think a lot of us can feel a certain momentum growing. It’s a vitality that’s taking hold. And I think a large part of all that energy stems from big initiatives like the CRFC and Active RVA. These are both deeply ambitious agendas. We’re not looking to chip away at these public health issues, we’re looking to radically alter the landscape.”

Morrison acknowledges that the CRFC’s mission is an ambitious one but says, “I don’t think we’re taking on this big of a scope just for fun. We’re doing it because ultimately, it’s the most strategic way to win the biggest results for Richmonders.”

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Stephanie Ganz

Stephanie Ganz thought there would be pizza.

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