Council indicates support for Food Equity Initiative but funding decisions to come later

Food Equity discussion

Representatives of the nonprofit group Cultivate Charlottesville appeared before City Council on November to present the results of the city’s Food Equity Initiative. Cultivate Charlottesville has been the recipient of city funding for the past three years and seek additional money for years to come. They also want two percent of the meals tax to go a new Food Equity Fund.

“We believe that food is a human right and we operate from that perspective that everyone, all Charlottesville residents, deserve access to fresh produce and high quality food,” said co-executive director Richard Morris.

Morris said food equity is an outcome where all residents have access to food that meets nutritional and cultural needs. 

Earlier this year, Council was presented with a Food Equity Initiative Policy Platform which seeks to serve as a strategic plan to fund a variety of initiatives, and they’ve sought support for funding through an online petition. Much of this work is also finding its way into the draft Comprehensive Plan which Council will consider on November 15. 

The Food Equity Initiative Platform is a strategic plan that has also been embedded within the draft Comprehensive Plan

One challenge is that the Urban Agricultural Collective has lost or soon will lose control of land it has used for community gardens. Land at the public housing site at Sixth Street SW is slated to be used for redevelopment. 

“The overall budget for the Food Justice Network has been about $400,000, $155,000 of what was the Food Equity Initiative contributed,” said co-director Jeanette Abi-Nader. “And you’ll note that the majority of the budget goes toward staffing.” 

The group is seeking a multiple year commitment, despite the fact that elected bodies in Virginia cannot appropriate money beyond the next fiscal year. The request comes outside of the budget cycle, as well as the Vibrant Communities process through which nonprofits apply for funding. That process used to be conducted jointly with Albemarle County. 

Mayor Nikuyah Walker praised the report submitted with the funding request, but had concerns. 

“If we are adding this as a three-year item, that the way other nonprofits have to compete for funding, I have some reservations there,” Walker said. 

Abi-Nader said Cultivate Charlottesville did not apply for Vibrant Community funds in the past two years because they had been funded by Council outside of that process. She explained how she thinks the current request is different. 

“We see the Vibrant Communities funds as really about programs that impact the community, like direct support programs and engagement, and this program is seen as a support for a function of city government,” Abi-Nader said. 

Walker noticed there have been several groups funded outside of the budget cycle and the Vibrant Community fund, such as the B.U.C.K. Squad and Peace and Streets.

“I think our whole process needs to be reviewed and if there is a list of community partnerships that are doing the work the city thinks is essential that can’t be done without that partnership, then that needs to be a separate list from the Vibrant Communities but the way things are set up now, I don’t think it’s a fair process,” Walker said. 

Councilor Lloyd Snook appeared to agree that the resolution as presented was not appropriate. 

“Franky it appears to me to be an attempt to circumvent the budget process,” Snook said. 

Misty Graves, the interim director of the city’s Human Services Department, said the resolution came up because the initiative was a creature of City Council. 

“So I think that’s why it’s coming to back to City Council for whether or not it is a renewed commitment and if this is still a priority of City Council,” Graves said. 

Next year will be the fourth year of the initiative. The $155,000 will be built into the general fund budget that will be introduced by whoever will be City Manager early next March. The vote was 3 to 2 with Walker and Snook voting against and the resolution does not guarantee funding for FY23. 

The other request was for two percent of the meals tax proceeds to go to a Food Equity Fund. In Fiscal Year 2020, the city collected $12.6 million from the meals tax, which would have generated just over $250,000 for this purpose. (Charlottesville’s 2020 annual report

Abi-Nader said this fund would cover infrastructure to support food equity goals.

“And by infrastructure, I mean that informally, not like literally always physical things, but infrastructure support for our city to move from a foodie city to a food equity city as an overall goal,” Abi-Nader said. “There are things that go beyond what an individual nonprofit can do.” 

One idea is a cooperative grocery store to be located near subsidized housing. Another is to build a new community garden in a section of Washington Park.

“There’s space there to sight a quarter-acre park,” Morris said. “We’re talking about 10,000 square feet which from a growing perspective that’s a space that can grow a lot of food.”

Councilors did not commit to the idea at this point in the budget cycle, but there was general support for the initiative. 

“For the record, I really support this group,” said Vice Mayor Sena Magill. “What they are doing is amazing work and it’s greatly needed work. I know I’ve been learning from them for the last three years now.” 

Another issue worth continuing to track into the future. 

Before you go: The time to write and research of this article is covered by paid subscribers to Charlottesville Community Engagement. In fact, this particular installment comes from the November 2, 2021 edition of the program. To ensure this research can be sustained, please consider becoming a paid subscriber or contributing monthly through Patreon.

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