Listening Better: the South Park Food Conversation

Added on by Erin White.

Last summer we held an experiment. We invited a chef to cook some healthy food out in front of the Galley Store in Raleigh's South Park neighborhood. We brought in a nutritionist, and we invited neighbors to come and eat. We planned on asking people about food in the neighborhood. Nothing too specific, and no higher expectations than simply trying to listen. 

We knew that in order to do meaningful food system work in a low-income neighborhood, we needed first-hand connections to that community. From our work to develop the Raleigh Food Corridor, we knew that effectively engaging and working with this neighborhood was important not only for the Corridor, but also to start breaking down food insecurity and equity issues throughout Southeast Raleigh. We also felt that in addition to bringing fresh and healthy food to food deserts, healthy corner stores could also act as community spaces in neighborhoods lacking community centers or safe outdoor public space. So we reached out to the Galley and got permission to use part of their front parking area. 

We didn't know what to expect, but at that first event we had some illuminating conversations and shared a lot of food. The store manager liked what we were doing, and the chef had a great time. So we did it again.

Now we are 11 months into our project at the Galley and we can reflect back on what we've created. There have been challenges, and reason to doubt what we're doing there. What are we actually achieving by feeding about 30 or 35 people a small meal once a month, in a neighborhood full of free food giveaways that we clearly aren't members of, and showing up with the intention of somehow getting to know the neighborhood by doing it? We could be seen as naive or presumptuous at best. So why do it? Along the way we've asked ourselves why this matters, and what difference we think we are making. Why is this little, low-key event one day a month worth doing? We decided up front that if we could learn new ways to engage communities, make a tangible difference in that neighborhood's food system, and make new collaborative connections that it would be worth it. Looking back on the first year, we know that we are getting there. Not perfect, but getting there.

Last winter, Wake Co Human Services joined us, and we've been partnering with them since February 2015. In March, one of Wake County's state representatives joined us for a meal. We discovered that some students from the Chef's Academy in Morrisville live in the neighborhood, and they've pitched in as sous chefs and neighborhood connectors. We've had teenagers jump in first as prep assistants to cook the food, and then as an energetic sales team encouraging more people to try something new. We've had over 6 different guest chefs join us to share their ideas, vision, and enthusiasm. We've built trust with the store management to the point where we can start having conversations about how the store can be an even stronger asset to the community. We are building relationships with other neighborhood organizations and looking for ways to encourage new connections. And over the last two months we've piloted new information gathering methods at the event itself, to survey people on lots of different questions. 

The project is an excellent fit for Community Food Lab. It's active community engagement that is at the same time research about community engagement. We are learning as we go. The project is pushing our design abilities in new ways, as we wrestle with challenges related to race and identity, participatory vs expert design, and the need for empathy as a first step in any human-centered design work. Because this counts as design to us - building trust, asking questions, and feeding people healthy food. All these are open-ended, complex problems that force creativity, iterative problem-solving, and the knowledge that we may never get it quite right. 

So, what have we found? Here's some of what we've learned:

  • Less than a quarter of people we talked to in July drive themselves to the grocery store. The others are driven by friends or take the bus.
  • Over 60% of people we talked to in July cook at home everyday.
  • Having chefs show up and only cook with ingredients found at the Galley is a great format, a good challenge for the chefs, and an effective follow-up for recipe sharing 
  • Kids activities help everyone stay longer
  • Sitting and eating together is a terrific way to start and maintain conversations

And many thanks to our guest chefs: Ryan McGuire, Andrew Ullom, Cherisse Byers, Stacey Sprenz, Chef Kabui, and Meghan Malka.