Food Justice in Charlottesville, Virginia:
Taking Care of the Planet, Respecting People, and Ensuring Sustainable Profit
May 7, 2013
Each bite of food we take casts a vote. When you choose to bite in to an
apple, you aren’t just making a healthy snack choice. You are voting, with your
taste buds, with your wallet, and with your mind to support a certain way of life
that is dictated by our food system. You are deciding whether or not a farm
worker can pay for an injury he incurred picking your apple or if he can eat a
warm meal that night. You are deciding to support an institution that might create
major environmental problems for your area. And you are probably consuming a
number of chemicals which may do harm to your body. But the end problem is
the same: you have to eat.
The concept of food justice is one way we can begin to make sense of all
of the complicated factors that affect each bite of food we take. Food justice
takes in to account every player in our food system. From picker to producer,
from planter to procurement officer, and every step in between, food justice is a
comprehensive lens for viewing the issues that surround our food. Food justice is
a movement that is riding on the coattails of the organic and local food
movements–but some may argue it is casting a wider net. Food justice seeks to
invite everyone from sweet pea picker to the President of Monsanto to the
metaphorical dinner table of society.
The discussions food justice seeks to spur can be uncomfortable and
complicated but also fruitful and undeniably important in the recreation and
reclamation of society’s food systems: a revamping that takes in to account not
only the affordability, accessibility, and nutritional content of our food but also all
the people and processes involved in getting food from the fields (or the shelves,
or the kitchens) to our mouths.
The concept of food justice can seem overwhelmingly complex and to a
certain extent why shouldn’t it be? Taking a bite of your sandwich, picking an
apple off the pile at the grocery store, or choosing one restaurant over another
can seem like mindless activities. Our lives depend on eating so it seems natural
for there to be concern about what we are eating, where it comes from, and who
might be harmed by our consumption. In an ideal world, healthy food would be
available to all while not harming the environment or the people involved in any
step from getting food to our plates. Achieving food justice would mean to fulfill
the ultimate triple bottom line: taking care of the planet on which we grow our
food, respecting the people involved in getting food from farms to our tables, and
ensuring the sustainable profits that makes it all possible.
What does food justice mean for Charlottesville?
In order to discuss what food justice means for the city of Charlottesville, it
is first important to zoom out and take a brief moment to describe some of the
key issues related to Virginia’s agricultural economy. By doing this it may be
possible to point out larger gaps that will need to be filled in order to achieve food
justice in the city.
Virginia’s food system is inextricably linked to the agricultural industry of
the state. The 2011 Virginia Farm to Table Team reports the following statistics:
Virginia agriculture brings in $55 billion each year which supports 357,00 jobs.
Each job created by the agricultural and forestry industries supports another 1.5
jobs (Virginia Farm to Table Team 1). As concerned citizens continue to push
back against the industrial food system and seek to support local farmers and
local food businesses, it is an important time for the city of Charlottesville to
consider how it can make the most of this lucrative opportunity. While there are
no farming operations located within city limits, the city of Charlottesville is not
going to be a major player in contributing to the $2.9 billion of Virginia’s direct
agricultural output. However, the city most definitely has a place in growing the
state’s $26 billion agriculture-related business output. So what do all these
numbers have to do with food justice in Charlottesville?
Strengthening our food system by tapping in to the growth of the
agriculture-related business sector at the local level can improve food access,
affordability, and economic well-being for the city of Charlottesville. Within the
city, there are neighborhoods characterized by abounding wealth directly
adjacent with areas of extreme poverty. The disparate economic realities faced
by residents living in the city has been defined by Ridge Schuyler and Meg
Hannan’s 2011 repot for the Orange Dot Project entitled, “A Declaration of
Independence: Family Self-Sufficiency in Charlottesville”. According to the report,
1,388 or one out of five families in Charlottesville currently do not earn wages
they can survive on: they cannot adequately pay for food, clothing, shelter and
utilities (Hannan and Schulyer 4).
The findings of the report are hugely important in understanding that many
families in Charlottesville are financially stable enough to afford food (healthy
food that is sometimes very expensive) but many others are not. Additionally,
2,069 families living in the city do not earn enough money to be considered selfsufficient.
Food justice calls for families to be able to thrive, not just survive. The
Orange Dot Report calls for the community to “implement an economic
development strategy that will generate $20-30 million in additional total annual
income for these families.” The purpose of this paper will be to discuss
suggestions for how the food justice movement uncovers solutions to filling this
demonstrated financial gap and how the city of Charlottesville can harness the
power of local agriculture in doing so.
What do we already know about Charlottesville’s food system?
In the spring of 2006, the Department of Urban and Environmental
Planning at the University of Virginia began offering Planning Applications
Courses (PLAC) in food systems planning. Each course has offered students the
chance to explore a specific issue involving food through the academic discipline
of community planning for the city of Charlottesville and the surrounding counties
of Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa, and Nelson.
While the areas of study have been wildly different, many of the
recommendations for strengthening Charlottesville’s food system have been the
same. The work generated by these courses has identified major assets and
challenges to the city’s food system. It is time to address these challenges in the
name of food justice.
Beginning seven years ago, the first class presented a preliminary
assessment of Charlottesville’s regional food system. They identified the
following barrier: “Farmers have a lack of access to processing facilities and
therefore reduced opportunities to sell value-added products with longer shelf
lives” (PLAC 569, 37). In 2007, a team of students found that the biggest problem
“lies within the economy of the middle, where both processing and distribution
make up the missing link to ensuring a connected and unified local food system”
(Camburnbeck and Evans 1).
Food Processing was again identified as a barrier to the success of
Charlottesville’s local food system by the 2008 class. Their report included a
focus on the issue of meat processing for small farmers but also discussed the
concept of food miles in relation to food processing. Their report features the
Jefferson Area Board for Aging (JABA) as a case study; they concluded that “ a
local processing plant would be extremely helpful for JABA and would enable
them to serve local food to their clients during off-peak harvest seasons”
(“Healthy Communities” 123). The 2010 food policy audit looked at support for a
local food processing infrastructure and noted that at the time the proposed
community kitchen at the Jefferson school was the only processing option for the
city. While this has come to fruition, it does not feature the specialized equipment
needed for larger scale processing (Boswell et al. 4). Lastly, the work done by
one student in 2012 Food Heritage class reported on the connection between
healthful, minimally processed foods and the connection to the history. She found
that “strengthening small, local, healthy food processing and canning will
enhance our food heritage and our heritage as small businesspeople” (Kresse-
The call for a food processing facility for the city of Charlottesville has
been made, but the city has not yet answered. Now is the time to consider some
very specific ways in which local food business entrepreneurs can team up with
the city to build a facility.
Food Justice Audit: Methodology and Community Engagement
During the spring semester of 2013, I participated in a community food
system course on food justice. Working off the foundation built upon the
previously mentioned courses, this class worked through the concept of food
justice as another way to measure the strength of Charlottesville’s food system.
By separating in teams, our class tested a newly conceived food justice
audit for the Charlottesville’s neighborhoods of 10th and Page, Belmont, Fifeville,
and Ridge Street. My team was tasked with the 10th and Page neighborhood,
The audit was separated in to “higher order” questions that addressed the whole
city and specific neighborhood questions. For the neighborhood questions, I took
on the Public Health and Food-Based Economic Development sections and
Danielle completed the Food Access & Infrastructure; School-Based Food &
The 10th and Page neighborhood is about 80 acres large, it’s northern
boundaries are Preston Avenue and Grady Avenue, to the east is the Southern
Railroad, to the west is the CSX Railroad, and it’s western boundaries
include12th, 10th, and 11th streets (“10th and Page”). To become immersed in the
neighborhood and to fulfill the community engagement portion of the course, we
were placed with the Jefferson Area Board for Aging at the Mary Williams
Community Center located within the Jefferson School.
The strengths for food justice found in the neighborhood included the
availability of health care services—such as the Starr Hill Health Center (located
in the Jefferson School), access to a full service grocery store, and close
proximity to recreational parks. The major challenges preventing the fulfillment of
food justice in the neighborhood are a community recognized disconnect with the
Jefferson School, limited walk-ability of the neighborhood (due to narrow
sidewalks, fast through traffic, and inadequate lighting), and a lack of education
around proper nutrition for citizens of all ages living in the 10th and Page
Our work at the Mary Williams Community Center can only be described
as thoroughly enjoyable and provided interesting insights to how JABA is
procuring food justice for the elderly community within the city of Charlottesville
and the surrounding counties. One of the first things we came to realize was that
the seniors attending the center were not from the 10th and Page neighborhood.
It soon became a reality that the focus of our study about food justice would be
around JABA and Charlottesville’s elderly population. During our sessions, the
most helpful thing we did was to serve lunch to the seniors. After noticing how
meals changed from day to day, especially with regards to the availability of fresh
fruits and vegetables versus canned goods, I decided that I wanted to find out
more about the stakeholder chain involved in getting a hot meal on the table at
the Mary Williams Community Center.
Thought Leader and Life History Interviews
To learn more about the services offered by JABA and the Mary Williams
Community Center I began my series of interviews with Cheryl Petencin, the
registered nurse and diabetes educator on site at the center. On February 21,
2013, Danielle and I interviewed Ms. Petencin in her office at the Mary Williams
Ms. Petencin has spent 30 years in community health and nursing, giving
her an interesting perspective on food justice. One of the biggest challenges of
her job is getting people to realize that they need to incorporate more fresh fruits
and vegetables in to their diets. Ms. Petencin remarked that canned food—a
form of food that is affordable and easy to eat for some out of society’s most
vulnerable populations (and often the form of food provided by food banks)—is
extremely high in sodium. She said, “people come to me and say they cannot
use those foods anymore because their doctors told them they have kidney
disease and they are at risk for going on dialysis and they cannot consume that
kind of food.” She went on to say that if there was the availability of lower
sodium canned and frozen that would be a great step in improving food
justice. In regards to meals at the center, she also explained, “Whenever there is
the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables, our clients are very excited about it.”
She understood food justice as having the “access to good quality,
minimally processed, nutritious food, and the ability to obtain factual information
as opposed to the current marketing strategies which enable our country to be in
the midst of an obesity epidemic.”
I also interviewed Emily Daidone, Manager of Community Centers and
Home Delivered Meal Program on April 8, 2013 in her office at the at the
Jefferson Area Board for Aging headquarters in Charlottesville. JABA’s
commitment to local food and food justice (not only for the elderly but also for the
community) is outstanding. After speaking with Emily Daidone I got a better
understanding of how complicated it is to fund these meals I helped serve during
my volunteer work at the Mary Williams Community Center.
Title III of the Older Americans Act provides funding to help state agencies
on aging provide both congregate and home-delivered meals for people 60 and
older. According to a report by Kristen J. Collelo, a specialist in health and aging
policy these meal services are “designed to address problems of food insecurity,
promote socialization, and promote the health and well-being of older persons”
(1). For JABA, the funding provided under Title III is channeled through the
Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services (DARS). DARS
provides a set of nutrition guidelines the meals served by JABA must meet if they
are to receive the government funding. But the funding does not always cover the
entire cost of the meal. As Ms. Daidone noted in our interview, “the food we
get to follow those guidelines can be improved.” She also explained that the
biggest obstacle in providing healthful meals to the seniors is the cost and being
able to afford the best food available.
To broaden my focus back to the Charlottesville community, I interviewed
a local grocery store owner (who preferred not to be named in this report) on
March 22, 2013 at the store. This store is notable because it is located adjacent
to some of Charlottesville’s poorer neighborhood and because it is one of the
only independently owned grocery stores left in the area.
While the store does try to source locally, the interviewee explained that
price is the driving factor that enables the store to carry a product. The
interviewee said, “people like local, but local is expensive because the small
farmer has different expenses than a larger farmer has.” The store does offer
local produce and other local products when it can, but a lot of the times
customers find that cheaper items are of the same high quality as the local items
A longer, more in depth life history interview was also conducted with Mr.
Bobby Green at his home on March 5, 2013. Mr. Green is a retired Police
Community Service Officer and active community member who has devoted his
life to keeping the citizens of Charlottesville safe and fed. Mr. Green provided
some insight to the issues with food assistance program as he described SNAP
abuses within the city of Charlottesville. In his opinion, food assistance programs
like SNAP can be taken advantage of. He stressed the importance of making
sure government dollars, specifically regarding food assistance programs, get
spent on those who really need help the most
Below are two case studies that may act as examples for Charlottesville.
They utilize similar models for establishing small to mid scale food processing
facilities. It will be important to consider the success and challenges faced by
other cities before moving forward in Charlottesville.
The Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center, located in
Greenfield Massachusetts, is owned by the Franklin County Community
Development Corporation. The center’s mission is to “promote economic
development through entrepreneurship, provide opportunities for sustaining local
agriculture, and promote best practices for food producers” (Western
Massachusetts Food Processing Center). Starting as a commercial kitchen, the
center has expanded to have blanching and freezing capabilities.
There are many aspects of the center that can be applied to
Charlottesville. The “Extend the Season” program was launched in 2009 and
aimed to increase the region’s accessibility to local food all year long through
canning and freezing which are known as “light processing.” The next step of the
program is called the “Extend the Season Farm to Institution Program.” The
mission of this program is to improve the value chain for both frozen and canned
products by selling frozen local food to institutions such as schools and hospitals.
Leslie Schaller is the co-founder and Director of Programming of ACEnet,
located in Athens, Ohio. The mission of ACEnet is “to build networks, support
innovation, and facilitate collaboration with Appalachian Ohio’s businesses to
create a strong, sustainable regional economy” (ACEnet). ACEnet operates as a
business incubator and also owns the Food Manufacturing and Commercial
ACEnet improves the links in the regional food system value chain. By
operating a processing facility, farmers can sell more of their products to local
entrepreneurs seeking to create value-added products. The facility has also
helped farmers connect with restaurant owners they might not normally be able
to network with.
In connecting farmers to the buying power of larger institutions, Leslie
Schaller said, “If we can figure out how to take the bounty of fresh produce that is
grown in this region and extend the season through flash freezing, that’s a big
plus.” She went on to explain, “Now with some of the Institutional buyers and
restaurant buyers being interested in buying frozen food, especially in a food
service quantity packaging, we feel that it is a real opportunity for us at ACEnet to
generate new tenants, diversify our revenue streams, and then really meet all the
needs within the value chain” (ACEnet).
ACEnet’s recognizes the importance of creating a space for local
entrepreneurs to network while also operating a useful processing facility. Both
pieces are needed in order support the economic viability of the regional food
system. This example is especially important for Charlottesville because the
center not only offers the equipment necessary it also provides business training,
raises community awareness, and builds relationships to strengthen the food
Community Based Ideas For Advancing Food Justice
In places where food is produced, improving local and regional food
systems is a way towards community development that builds health, wealth,
connection and capacity (Meter). Around 40% of all produce grown is sold below
cost or wasted all together (Gunders 4, IDA 27). The ability to preserve or
process produce that can’t be sold in the marketplace means the ability to use
goods that would be wasted and to make value added goods (like sauces, jams,
and salsas). Processing centers can include shared kitchens, dehydration
equipment, and freezing facilities. Entrepreneurs, local business people, city
officials, and concerned citizens should consider how the establishment of a food
processing facility could harness the power of our local agricultural economy.
The formation of Charlottesville’s Local Food Hub is one way our local
food system has been improved. The Local Food Hub functions as an aggregator
by connecting small farmers to wholesale markets. The next step in improving
our food system is to establish a food processing facility. A worker-owned food
processing facility in Charlottesville would be an efficient use of time, energy, and
funds that could help create meaningful employment for some of the city’s 1,388
families that currently do not make enough money to survive (Hannan and
There are multiple community food processing projects currently on the
ground that could be scaled up, with support from the city. The Vinegar Hill
Canning Cooperative is a canning cooperative started by four female community
members. It was made possible the ingenuity of the founding members and
through partnerships with Market Central and the Jefferson Area Bureau on
Aging (JABA) and the sponsorship of the Healthy Food Coalition. They are
already working to can unsellable produce using the commercial kitchen facilities
at the Jefferson School and have begun selling their canned goods at
Charlottesville’s City Market. As explained by Joanie Freeman, “the cooperative
business model gives people an opportunity to enter in to the economic wealth
stream that exists Charlottesville.” The expansion of the canning cooperative
would be a win for food justice because it helps turn unsellable produce in to
profit, while also acknowledging the cultural importance of canning and the
history of Vinegar hill, and because the cooperative model respects the worker
by giving him or her ownership of the business.
The Jefferson Area Board for Aging has also called for the establishment
of a food processing center that could serve the city of Charlottesville and the
surrounding counties. JABA received funding to complete a feasibility study for
building a freezing facility in order to utilize products grown in Virginia for largescale
institutional meal service. With no known competitors in the area, JABA
found that this type of facility could generate sales between $3 and $5 million
(“Community Food System Project Phase III”). The study found that flash
freezing is the best type of processing for retaining the nutrition, taste, and
texture of produce. A flash freezing establishment would also be a win for food
justice because it has a lot of economic benefits: it creates a market for
unsellable produce, improves profits for farmers, creates jobs within the
agricultural business sector, and could encourage more local food businesses.
In either case, it would be possible to see how a processing facility would
be a win for the community, depending on where the funding comes from and
where it is built. Such a facility could be community or cooperative owned and
could include commercial kitchen, dehydration, freezing and canning equipment.
Possible next steps to take involve obtaining funding to build such an
establishment. One source of funding is the “Value-Added Producer Grants”
made available by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. These grants
can be used to develop business plans, conduct feasibility studies, or otherwise
support businesses devoted to value-added products (“Value-Added Producer
One of the greatest strengths, the availability of both congregate and
home-delivered meals for seniors as provided by JABA, found through my
service work at the Mary Williams Center also pointed to the biggest gap and
room for the improvement for food justice in Charlottesville. By understanding
that JABA receives a bulk of their frozen food from a large food processing
facility in Florida, it became clear to me that food processing is a missing piece of
Charlottesville’s food system.
After reading through previous reports generated by the food systems
planning courses at the University of Virginia, I found that students, community
members, and agricultural leaders alike have been calling for food processing.
Additionally, I was able to run ideas about a food processing center by
community leader Joanie Freeman, Executive Director of the Healthy Food
Coalition and a founding member of the Vinegar Hill Canning Cooperative. Ms.
Freeman has been working tirelessly to raise money to establish a full-scale
cannery in Charlottesville as she believes this city needs a cannery. She
confirmed that there is a large market for second grade produce.
With the call for food processing coming from many different community
members around the city, I believe that the time has come to encourage the city
to aid in the establishment of a food processing facility to harness the total power
of our local agricultural economy. Additionally, as government funding for
programs like JABA’s meal service become limited, locally oriented business
solutions are necessary to protect the resilience of the city of Charlottesville.
Strengthening our food system by tapping in to the growth of agriculture-related
business through the establishment of a food processing facility at the local level
can fortify food justice by improving food access, affordability, and economic
well-being for the city of Charlottesville.
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Download the Food Justice in Charlottesville project here.