Justine Post, director of RAFI's Come to the Table program. (Photo courtesy of Post.)

Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

Last year, at the start of my internship with the Daily Yonder, our editor Tim and I were looking for practice stories for me. My sense was that I needed to write something that met a real journalistic need, but – because I was nervous – I also hoped those first stories would mostly include sources who already liked the Yonder and aligned with its mission. In that mindset, I wasn’t expecting to get too invested in the stories I wrote about Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI)’s programs, Come to the Table and the Farmers of Color Network. In fact, I was truly unprepared for how much I learned from those interviews with rural pastors, black farmers, and the thoughtful folks at RAFI. 

Come to the Table’s biennial conference occurred March 15 and 16, with a focus on “Owning Our Food Future.” We wanted to continue those conversations here about small-town access to fresh food, and supporting marginalized farmers. 

Enjoy this interview with Come to the Table’s new program director Justine Post about her journey from clinical social work to community food access, and what’s beyond the food bank, below. 

Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: Firstly, can we just talk a little bit about who you are, where you’re from, and what you were up to before you came to RAFI?

Justine Post: I’m the current program director for the Come to the Table Program at RAFI as of January. Prior to this, I worked for nearly six years for another nonprofit that supports rural grassroots and faith based organizations here in North Carolina. So rural places and faith communities in North Carolina have been my bread and butter for the last several years. Before that, I was working on a joint Master’s of Divinity and Social Work degree, which thankfully has really equipped me to do exactly what I wanted to do, which is work within communities and especially churches — assisting them to better serve their communities and their neighbors. That’s what I was up to before coming to RAFI and what I love about this position is the focus primarily on farmers and supporting them and thinking more specifically about how to connect churches with farmers in their local economies in rural North Carolina, and also just helping churches think about the importance of economic mobility for local growers, particularly farmers of color. In short, it’s been an exciting transition for me.

DY: That’s all really interesting. I would imagine that when you began those degrees in Social Work and in Divinity you were not exactly anticipating such straightforward career moves that that really worked with your interests.

JP: Definitely and, to be honest, before I entered social work school, all my background was in mental health, particularly pediatric mental health. I thought I was just going to be a clinician, but then I was applying all over the Triangle area for jobs and this was just a natural fit, because a lot of my clinical training came in handy working with communities and having hard conversations about race and class and access to food and other resources. So for me, it all ties together.

DY: Was that shift into working with communities, as you say, a direct result of having worked in the very individualized space of therapy? Was that a transition that you were actively trying to make away from working with individuals to working with groups?

JP: No, actually, not at all. But I was interviewing for a couple of social work positions right out of the gate, and I got an offer for one that was more clinical care that I said no to thinking it was because I didn’t want to travel. But then I took my previous job before this one, and realized that that wasn’t it. It was that I wanted to work in dynamic spaces and not really in clinical care. I just got lucky and got this position that allowed me to really understand and be with North Carolinians across the state. I didn’t grow up in North Carolina, I grew up in Michigan. I’ve lived here for almost 10 years. But so many people have moved to more urban areas in North Carolina in the last 10 years, so I think it’s pretty common to live in the state and not actually know it for a very long time. I feel lucky to understand this state so much better, and the different experiences of it that exist in different counties. 

DY: Can you outline the connection between churches and community food security, for those of us to whom it might not be so obvious? Why is it important to involve churches and faith based organizations in these food security initiatives? 

JP: I think it’s important and it’s natural. For centuries churches have been at the foot of those who are hungry or who are in need. It’s scriptural, and it’s rooted in traditional practices. So food ministries end up being a very common service that rural churches have engaged in for a long time, whether that’s just food donations, or food pantries, or cooked meals. Historically, that relationship has almost always taken the form, at least in Christian churches, as someone giving to someone else, so there’s always a power dynamic. 

Post is helping churches reexamine their food pantry programs, including introducing more fresh food options. (Photo courtesy of Post.)

The church is usually the one that has the food or accesses the food and provides it to those who are in need. And that’s a great entry point, but we come in and we say, “Hey, look, you’re providing food. Let’s think about how you’re providing it. In what ways are you relating to those you are serving? And let’s think about what you’re offering. Are you able to offer fresher options? Are you able to offer culturally appropriate foods to the communities that are coming to you? Are you able to offer local foods when possible so that things are fresher and because it can help boost the regional economy?” 

Food is just a really amazing entry point because everyone has to eat, and also because churches have been involved in giving out food for so long. There’s an opportunity to say, “When you’re giving out food, what do you notice?” Do you notice that maybe, for example, when the stimulus checks went into play, they stopped seeking services from you and do you think that’s a good or bad or indifferent thing? 

DY: Can you think of a particularly illustrative example of a church figuring out how to do something deeper than just maintaining a food pantry?

JP: I will say it’s challenging because they’re usually so busy feeding folks, and the pandemic resulted in some regression as emergency feeding became so necessary. However, one church in particular, West End United Methodist Church, runs a food pantry in a rural county that’s open twice a month and they are utilizing all kinds of food access services. They were feeding so many people that they’re pulling in all the food they can get, regardless of quality. But a couple of years ago I introduced them to a nearby food hub — a local middleman between consumer and farmer. The goal of a food hub is to aggregate a lot of produce and buy from the farmers so that the farmers don’t have to deal with sales and administrative stuff, they can just grow their food. This one in particular buys the produce from the farmer and boxes it for sale or for donation, depending on grant funding and those sorts of things.

At the time a member came to me complaining about the quality of the food because it was a lot of processed and shelf stable foods, and there just wasn’t really anything fresh. So I got her in touch with this food hub that was packaging fresh, local produce just 15 minutes away from the church. They ended up getting 100 boxes of produce every month and distributing them to those who were in need. The key lesson there was that the board members of the food pantry were rightfully concerned about penny-pinching, and very wary because they were paying 20 to 30 dollars a box for the food and they didn’t know if it was going to be worth it or not. But the lay member worked very hard and she did a lot of work surveying how people liked the new program, what folks were doing with the produce, and what it meant to them, and she was able to paint this amazing picture. So much so that now, a year later, they’re willing to commit 50% of their budget to purchasing the produce directly. Change comes slowly, but it was such a positive experience to see a couple of people come together and provide access to healthy and fresh food and show that it really made a difference.

DY: Wow, that’s a great story. Lastly, would you mind telling me about the Racial Wealth Gap Simulation that you’re doing at the Come to the Table Conference? How does that relate to the rest of the work you’re doing?

JP: The Racial Wealth Gap Simulation is in partnership with Bread for the World, and it helps walk people through a simulation of what historical events you’ve been through in the United States in the last 100 years depending on what race you are. It walks you through some big historical events and policies, systemic and personal, and broadly allows you to see how white communities were able to get ahead while people of color were constantly being pulled behind. We see its value and its importance in our conference because the theme is “Owning our Food Future,” and race has everything to do with food access. It’s all interconnected. In particular, the Come to the Table Initiative is partnering with our Farmers of Color Network to connect churches and farmers of color with funding and opportunities for churches to purchase food directly from farmers of color, knowing that historically, they have had significantly more barriers to access affordable markets and access to land. We see it as an act of racial justice to connect churches to farmers of color in order to improve those economies. There are churches that don’t see the importance of it, that don’t see why we would want to specifically create relationships between farmers of color and churches. So we hope that the simulation will deepen folks’ understanding of why we’re making the connections and the partnerships that we’re creating around food access.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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