Leading Systems Change in the Twin Counties

Sue Perry Cole moved from Rhode Island to Rocky Mount, NC in 1980 to work in legal aid, but ended up in community development. She raised a family in the Twin Counties and developed deep roots there, so when it was hit very hard by the 2008 recession, Perry Cole joined with her neighbors to look for ways to make a difference. This resulted in seeking to make connections between economics, health, and issues such as housing and food access.

Joining the Just Foods Collaborative

In 2010, the From Farm to Fork report identified high-priority areas such as the health connection between food and diet-related diseases. This helped elevate the focus on local food systems in community planning. Seeing promise in this, Perry Cole joined the work of stakeholders in the Twin Counties to ensure healthy food equity, distribution, and access through the formation of the local food council, the Just Foods Collaborative.

“A lot of this has been learning to build a bicycle and ride it at the same time,” said Perry Cole. “We weren’t discussing social determinants of health back then. The From Farm to Fork report didn’t use the words social determinants, but they were talking about the relationship between small farm development, access to nutritious fresh foods, and food-related diseases like diabetes.”

Twenty years after her move to North Carolina, Perry Cole now serves as the president and chief executive officer of the North Carolina Association of Community Development Corporations (NCACDC). She also serves as vice president on the board of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems. Her work in the state is focused on creating lasting policy change that supports sustainable and equitable food systems.

Championing change

As a voice for the food system and advocates for urban agriculture, Perry Cole and her colleagues seek to establish food access as a key consideration in the local planning and policy process. She believes that those most affected by the problems confronting these communities must be at the center of efforts to enact change.

The most notable example of their work was successfully ensuring that resident engagement and feedback played an integral role in the Rocky Mount city council’s Atlantic-Arlington Corridor Land Use Study and the development of recommendations. The Atlantic-Arlington Corridor is a community with a vibrant history that fell into decline as the local economy stagnated, and the goal of this study was to provide recommendations for revitalization. In April 2018, the city sponsored a public engagement session as a critical component designed to shape the study. Producing limited meaningful resident input, this public participation session eliminated all resident dialogue and merely permitted residents of highly distressed neighborhoods to post their feedback on “sticky notes” furnished to them.

NCACDC convinced city officials to hold a second public engagement session for the corridor study and invite residents from under-resourced neighborhoods to help plan it. The resulting 25-page written report of resident feedback guided development of the Corridor study that was adopted by the Rocky Mount city council in 2019. One key recommendation from the study that NCACDC is prioritizing requires consideration of urban agricultural strategies to ensure equitable food systems, and the organization will be partnering with members of the Just Foods Collaborative to design an implementation plan for it.

“Systems change doesn’t happen overnight,” Perry Cole said. “We’ve benefited greatly from the long-term support from the Trust as part of the Healthy Places initiative.”

What’s next?

Perry Cole and her team are always looking for inspiration and best practices from other communities around the state that they can bring back to the Twin Counties. Later this year, the Just Foods Collaborative will work with organizations in Winston-Salem to study the urban food policy council there and issue a debriefing report on the findings.