Wake County

Raleigh’s Erin White helps build a foundation of healthy food

Erin Sullivan White, 41, of Raleigh, is the principal and founder of Community Food Lab in Raleigh, N.C., which started in May 2013.
Erin Sullivan White, 41, of Raleigh, is the principal and founder of Community Food Lab in Raleigh, N.C., which started in May 2013. clowenst@newsobserver.com

Erin White likens our nation’s food system to an apartment building whose foundation is crumbling.

While less tangible than a roof caving in, it has caused obesity and waste, hunger and pollution. And much as the building relies on a complex web of wiring, plumbing, bricks and mortar, our food system connects farmers and retailers, policymakers and consumers.

White, 41, knows a bit about both situations, having worked at one time repairing foundations in earthquake-prone California, and at other times as a chef, farm manager, public health statistician and designer.

In his most recent career twist, he has spent the years since he earned his master’s degree in architecture focused on improving the Triangle’s food systems, and spawning a wider public conversation about food.

As founder of Community Food Lab, he spearheaded seven months of Second Saturday celebrations that wrapped up earlier this month, wide-ranging events centered on a two-mile stretch known as the Raleigh Food Corridor.

He is a founding member of the Capital Area Food Network, which seeks to advise local governments on policies that relate to food, including urban gardens. White has created educational gardens, a program guide for starting healthy corner stores, and pamphlets visualizing modes of urban food production.

Part of his goal is to help raise awareness of food as not just what we choose to eat but part of a system – one that fails when low-income communities don’t have access to healthy foods, or family farms can’t survive.

“There’s a romantic ideal of a farm and there’s our experience in the supermarket,” he says. “And for most people, there’s no understanding of the connection between those things.”

White’s mind for minute details and the larger vision of healthy communities has served as an important catalyst for the local food movement, says Sara Merz, director of Advocates for Health and Action, a Raleigh nonprofit.

“He’s just had a brilliant way of bringing a lot of attention and enthusiasm to these ideas,” Merz says. “He’s really, really smart about looking at how systems interact with one another and how people engage with them.”

Finding purpose

White grew up in Chapel Hill, where his father was a political science professor focused on East Asia. He spent two years in Japan, where he attended sixth grade.

Throughout high school, he went to summer camp at Gwynn Valley near Brevard; he spent his last year there running the camp’s farm.

He majored in biology at Bowdoin College in Maine. After graduation, he worked for a few years as a public health statistician in Raleigh, tracking pediatric cancer rates for the state’s Central Cancer Registry.

He considered graduate school in public health but wanted to enjoy a few carefree years before going back to school. So he headed to Colorado, where he spent a lot of time skiing and started working in restaurants.

He soon returned to Maine to work on a novel but ended up working full time as a cook under an innovative chef who inspired his love of food. He went on to cook at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill and at restaurants in Napa Valley.

Between jobs, he spent four months finishing his novel at a friend’s house in rural France. He later worked in construction in California and eventually worked for a company in Chapel Hill that built custom homes. It was there, he says, that he started to learn about design.

His interest piqued, he moved to Boston, where he was attending a part-time architecture program and working at a design firm when he was diagnosed with a fast-growing form of lymphoma. The treatments were short but intense, and the experience left him more focused on his future.

When he returned to Raleigh to earn his master’s in architecture at N.C. State, it was with a renewed sense of purpose.

“It was this really incredible opportunity to reflect on my life and where I was, what my priorities are,” he says. “I had the self-awareness to make the most of it, to really dig in and make it matter.”

One of those interests was food, and he worked out a course of study that considered how designing gardens and other food sources could revitalize blighted urban areas.

His thesis project focused on a Durham neighborhood, where he mapped out existing gardens and spaces that could potentially be used to grow or sell food. Later, he would design a farm for Durham Public Schools that is now used by several schools and as a training ground for teachers in experiential learning.

He worked for a while as a freelance designer and then decided to start his own company focused on using design to improve food systems. Structured as a for-profit company, Community Food Lab consults for private companies in addition to partnering with nonprofits in community work.

Providing healthy food

White sees food as a potential area of focus for advocates and policymakers, much as housing, transportation and clean water are. Why not create practices and policies aimed at helping provide people with healthy food?

The idea of the Raleigh Food Corridor was to kick-start conversations about how a healthy community might produce and consume food, uniting the efforts of community organizers as well as hobby gardeners, foodies and urban planners.

He and other activists picked a section of the city connected by the Raleigh City Farm to the north and the Interfaith Food Shuttle to the south. Events included lectures, demonstration gardens and pop-up markets, and other activities put on by local partners.

The food lab has created several pamphlets with detailed visualizations of food-friendly landscapes with features ranging from rooftop beehives to edible parks. The next one, slated to be in the form of a comic book, will focus on school gardens.

But his aim is to inform and inspire rather than to dictate.

“Local food can benefit different communities in different ways,” he says. “It’s not an idea that will be presented to a community in PowerPoint slides.”

The food lab’s other projects demonstrate the variety of food design work. White has helped plan a regional food strategy for Calgary, Canada, and is helping the town of Morrisville develop its farmer’s market.

He is helping plan a commercial kitchen in Raleigh and continues to work on Durham garden projects. He also helped create a network of experts at NCSU from different disciplines relating to food.

In his work with different people and institutions, he recalls the most important lesson of the apartment building analogy: Like the residents of that building, everyone has a stake in the solution.

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