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Raleigh’s Community Food Lab isn’t your average consulting firm.
Maybe this article should be about something else, Erin White suggested. As the founder and principal of Raleigh’s Community Food Lab, White’s more interested in talking about issues like food insecurity than talking about himself. He mentions in passing that he’s cooked at a couple restaurants, only revealing when asked that he spent time in kitchens like the seminal Crook’s Corner or cooking alongside Chapel Hill’s now-acclaimed chef Andrea Reusing. And he put in time as a cook and chef in Napa as well.
White’s modesty belies his experience, which ranges from working on a farm to a master’s degree in architecture from NC State. With the Wolfpack, he honed his thesis on how design thinking could help create more vibrant and resilient food systems, drawing on his experiences in restaurants, public health statistics, studying biology and more. It would later lead him to found Community Food Lab, a consulting firm connecting food systems and design thinking.
Right now it’s just White, but since its founding, the Boylan Heights-based Community Food Lab has sometimes included a team of two or three working on projects from the likes of the urban agriculture plan for North Hills and a statewide farmers market study to helping Raleigh’s UNC REX Healthcare create a food pantry. The idea is to make the local food system—from farm to fork—more sustainable, resilient and equitable.
White may be more reluctant to talk about himself, but he dives right into describing why this work matters: “If you look really honestly at our food system, it’s not doing very well. And, yet, most Americans take for granted that they can go to the grocery store and experience abundance, and there will always be everything they need there.”
Our food system is plagued by a host of issues, from childhood hunger to loss of farmland, but chief among them are “these existential problems of climate change and structural racism,” says White. To the Chapel Hill native, food is a lens through which to take on and find solutions for these overarching societal issues. That’s why Community Food Lab authored a Food Security Plan for Wake County several years ago, and it’s why, earlier this year, he urged Raleigh City Council to invest in a citywide food policy to look at issues like urban farming, composting, partnering with farmers and more. (He’s still waiting on council to make a decision on the idea.)
Ultimately, the goal of the Community Food Lab is to build a stronger local food system, and one way to do that is by bridging the gap between the urban Triangle and its surrounding rural farmland. It means a food system that can better withstand disruptions in the global supply chain (think of the recent chicken wing shortage). And it means tackling issues like the exploitation of agricultural workers and food service workers head-on.
It’s not that White pretends to have all the answers—quite the opposite. He sees his role as more of a convener, drawing people together and discussing new ways of thinking about “wicked problems” that can result in mutually beneficial solutions. It’s a tall order, and even eight years in, White is still figuring out exactly what that means and how he can best contribute.
“I think I see myself as trying to be valuable,” he says. Considering how unique a role White plays in Raleigh, it’s obvious he already is. communityfoodlab.org
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