Food and Community

I’ve been thinking about this post for over a day now, and I’m still not sure just exactly how to word it.

The trip to Asheville, North Carolina was busy, way too short and, most importantly, very enlightening. A city of approximately 75,000 people, and when those in the suburbs and surrounding county areas are considered it ups that to 200,000 plus. And if I remember one fact about the city, it’s this:

In the downtown area there is only one franchised restaurant. Most every other eatery in the area (and there’s a fair amount of them) is an independently or locally owned operation. Not only are there no McDonald’s, Wendy’s or KFC’s, there’s no Gordon Beirsch, Chili’s or any other nationally recognized restaurant.

This fact is even more impressive when the fact that Asheville’s second largest industry is tourism is taken into account. When the tens of thousands of visitors enter the city and see the vibrant restaurants, cafes and bistros, only one of them has a recognizable brand name.

And as I was taken around through the neighborhoods to talk with various food entrepreneurs and advocates, one thing became very clear to me. A community gets the food culture it deserves.

Those involved in the food in Asheville have worked hard to lessen the influence of big business has had upon their community. And don’t be fooled, big food has a strong presence in the area, especially the further away one is from down town. But there is a strong, concerted effort to mitigate their influence.

Whether it’s a local non-profit designed encourage local food entrepreneurs, the farm advocate who’s working to connect family farmers with new markets, or the restaurateur who proudly proclaims their belief in local and sustainable food products, Asheville is a city where the independent food community, not only thrives, but in many parts of the county is regarded as an equitable alternative to the McDonald’s, Safeways, and Conagra’s of the world. There are cities with populations much larger than that of Asheville’s who don’t have this level of integration into their community.

Part of this is certainly due to Asheville’s size. When you have less people to feed, it’s easier (i.e. cheaper and quicker) to change and adapt the infrastructure in place needed to get food to the people.

But the key component to change the infrastructure is to have a requisite amount of passionate people willing to put in the time and effort to make those changes. The less people involved, the more the current status quo stays in place.

What Asheville has demonstrated to me is that a small city or town doesn’t have to be beholden to mega-food corporations any more than cities like New York, San Francisco, or even Seattle have to be. But it does take work and passion. Lot’s of it.

A community gets the food culture it deserves, whether it’s one where Applebee’s and Albertson’s dominates, or one where local restaurateurs work with local farmers and consumers spend their money in a way that ensures that their dollars are re-invested in their community. Asheville has clearly chosen where it wants fits in this spectrum.

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