WFAEats: Mapping The Food Landscape

Nov 15, 2019

People who like to peruse maps and learn about local food resources will soon have a powerful new tool to do both. The Charlotte region’s first-ever, interactive map of our food system is under construction and slated to roll out in 2020.

But what exactly is a “food system” – and why do we need a map for it?

Put simply, a food system is made up of all the entities that produce, distribute, market, process, prepare, consume, and dispose of food. In other words, every farm, grocery store, restaurant, food transportation company, and even your local compost hauler are part of it.

Each of us uses that system every day; when we buy groceries, plant tomatoes, or visit a pumpkin patch, we’re taking part in it.

Now, in a region growing as rapidly as this one, it’s impossible to keep track of it all. Maybe you have a favorite farmers market, but what are you missing at the others? Where can you pick your own apples? Where are the restaurants the specialize in locally-grown food?

These are just a few of the questions the interactive food system map will answer. Where it gets even more compelling is when we understand how it functions on a much larger scale.

On a recent evening, members and guests of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Food Policy Council met at the Beatties Ford Public Library to test drive the map. Erin Hostetler, the map project lead, walked us through a quick tutorial, then turned us loose on laptops and phones.

Covering a 16-county area that straddles the North Carolina-South Carolina state line, the map is simple to navigate. Click a button for “markets” and the map populates with pins that plot their locations. Click “farms” and the map adds them. Let’s say you want to find a food pantry. Or a community garden. Or all the grocery stores that accept SNAP/EBT (there are 2,427 at last count). Each category has its own color pin.

Zoom in or out, and the sidebar will update with a total of how many facilities in each category are located in the area you’re viewing. Go macro to view the entire area at once or zoom in to street level and scroll block by block. People laughed good-naturedly to see just how much we didn’t know about our own city and neighborhoods.

This image shows the interactive map of the Charlotte food system.

Delving deeper, when a user clicks the button for “bus stops,” the map populates with more than 3,000 pins, making it look a lit-up Christmas tree. But this isn’t just a fun feature: It’s a critically important function of the map in a region where many people who need access to resources don’t have transportation.

Project leaders envision the map will be utilized across the entire spectrum of the food system: by planners, economic development offices, local governments, social service and health care agencies and food producers, as well as the general public.

Each testing session is “just an ‘appetizer,’” said Chris Hardin. He’s the Farm Projects Coordinator at Rivendell Farms of the Carolinas. As a non-profit organization that’s involved in multiple food advocacy and field-study efforts, RFC had the impetus to start the process of developing the map in May 2018, and continues to manage the logistics as the project grows.

As the evening wrapped up, Hostetler stopped by each table with quiz cards to test our skill.

“How many farmers markets are in Catawba County?”

“Name a local food establishment in Matthews.”

“What is the name of the community garden closest to UNCC?”

Finding the answers was suddenly easy.

“There are so many reasons why the time is ‘ripe’ for this tool,” Hardin explained in a follow-up chat. “Here's the top three. First, the citizens of the Charlotte region and the Carolinas are looking for better ways to locate, identify the quality and obtain good healthy local food. Second, we see food access agencies and medical professionals looking for a resource or tool to assist their clients or people in need to find healthy local food at a reasonable cost and within close proximity to their home or place of work. Third, the map will be a tool that can be used by farmers and farmers markets to create community, and sell local healthy food to citizens and organization in a manner that is streamlined, affordable and transparent.”

The food system map won’t be a static instrument but will evolve as more data become available and other partners get involved. A GIS specialist is doing the technical build-out with data partners, and there’s no cost to participate. Other organizations on the Food Map Task Force include the Piedmont Culinary Guild, the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, and the Center for Environmental Farming Systems.

“The map meets people where they are to connect them to the food they're looking for,” said Hardin.

The group is seeking map testers to take part in focus groups before the map is finalized next year, and other organization to participate in data-sharing. For more information email Erin Hostetler here.  

Amy Rogers writes WFAEats, a fun adventure where we explore all things tasty and tackle the meatier side of the food scene in and around Charlotte.