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A Carolina Food Summit? What does it mean to connect around plates, place, and policy?

Today, we are excited to announce that EdNC, in partnership with the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation, Terra Vita Festival, the Bitter Southerner, and UNC Food for All, will host our first ever Carolina Food Summit on September 28 and 29.

You may be asking why a food summit? Why us? Why now?

In many ways, it is fundamental and dates back to where each of us began.

As a child growing up in Western North Carolina, food was often a source of joy. 

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It was an opportunity to be together with my grandmother at her “meat and three” diner before school or over the summer. 

Food offered a chance to be with my adopted parents, who were my great-uncle and aunt by birth, one-on-one in the early morning hours.

Food could offer an opportunity to bond as I got to know older folks within the community over tomato sandwiches or gravy biscuits or livermush with Duke’s Mayo and cheese on white bread.

My birth mother, try as she might, was not always able to provide nutritious meals three times a day. But at school, I could count on a meal. Food became an escape for me from poverty.

The flavors of childhood — the stickiness of molasses at Sims BBQ in the woods outside of Lenoir or the burst of juiciness that came from biting into my great grandmother’s blueberries  — and the memories that come along with them are still with me as I pursue my work today. 

Those flavors give me a sense of place. They remind me that I am from the mountain passes of Deep Gap and from the pine trees of Piney. Those flavors remind me of the school cafeteria at Chesterfield Elementary School, the kind lunch staff of Happy Valley School, and the fried chicken sandwiches I had too often at Hibriten High School.

It is that sense of place we will be exploring on September 28 and 29. We are from North Carolina, sure, but we are also of it. Our staff, our community, all of us — including many of you — enjoy traipsing down dirt roads in search of great BBQ, ramp festivals, or apples just ready to pick.

Our access to the great food of our state reminds us that too many of our students statewide have too little food and too much of it is not nutritious.

Often the kitchens in our public schools are the largest commercial kitchens in the county.

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Often the largest pre-existing food delivery systems in our communities are the networks of school cafeterias in our school districts.

More than 50 percent of our public school children are eligible for free and reduced price lunch.

More than one in five of our children are food insecure.

Ask any teacher, it is really hard for students to focus on learning if they are hungry.

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We hope to discuss these challenges, and more importantly the opportunities, as we connect with one another at the Carolina Food Summit.

We will explore five themes:

Hunger

Change

Flavor

Policy

Sustainability

With one big question —

How do we ensure that the lives of all North Carolinians are enriched daily by a vibrant local food economy that fosters health, flavor, culture, and entrepreneurship?

And, perhaps most of all, how do we make sure that our next generation — our children — are left with a better food system than we inherited so that they might have a better life in a healthier, stronger, more vibrant state.

Along the way we will celebrate North Carolina’s food entrepreneurs and vital food economy. We have a strong food community and economy who give so much to this state. Our hope is to celebrate them, explore their needs, push innovation, and share their gifts with our state, region, country, and world.

We will be bringing together student and nonprofit voices, leaders and those who seek to lead, food service directors and chefs, and more. And we hope you might choose to be among them.

Our agenda remains in formation, but our schedule includes:

+ Chef Clark Barlowe of Heirloom in Charlotte who will discuss school nutrition and lunch. Clark has worked diligently to move the needle on the way the ways that we consider nutrition in our schools.

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+ Toni Tipton Martin is an award-winning food and nutrition journalist. She will share with us how she is using cultural heritage and cooking for social change.

+ Chuck Reece of the Bitter Southerner who will remind us that our stories — and our shared story of place — matter.

+ Wyatt Dickson of PICNIC in Durham who will speak to a different way of raising hogs, and a unique restaurant, which remains rooted in the age old tradition of barbecue.

+ Reverend Richard Joyner, one of our CNN Heroes, will share the story of the Conetoe Family Life Center and their work which has helped the children they serve return to the land, reconnect with the food system, and reconsider the way they might connect with entrepreneurship.

If you like your dishes Laos hot or mild at most, you will connect with Vansana Nolintha as he tells his story of the food of Bida Manda connecting him to the food of his youth.

More speakers will be announced in the days and weeks ahead. We promise this will not be a sit and get event.  You — yes, you will be an active participant and leader in the conversation. We intend to have plenty of opportunities for you to share how you connect to the plate, to your place, and how you imagine a statewide food policy for North Carolina.

And whether you have faced hunger in your life, or have always had a meal, you will better understand the challenges of hunger in our state for far too many of our students.

Our thanks to our partners — the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation, Terra Vita, Bitter Southerner, UNC Food for All — and all of those working on the Carolina Food Summit. 

Join us.

Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the director of growth for EducationNC.