Name: Elliott Royal
Current Position: Food Access Coordinator, Mecklenburg County Public Health
Elliott Royal is one of the premier resources in Charlotte for food system and advocacy work. She has supported and worked with farmers’ markets, school gardens and convenience store revitalization through a healthy corner store initiative. Her previous experience as Mecklenburg County Public Health’s Food Access Coordinator provided a great segue into her current work with the City of Charlotte as a Community Service Area Liaison.
She has participated in two Charlotte-area food system reports, the 2015 “State of the Plate” and the 2018 “Unlocking the Potential of Charlotte’s Farmers’ Markets and Food System.” Elliott serves as a board member of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Food Policy Council and Carolina Farm Trust.
This interview was conducted when Elliott was the Food Access Coordinator for Mecklenburg County Public Health. The interview was conducted by Ben Kerrick APA-FIG leadership committee member and Senior Consultant at KK&P. Ben and Elliott collaborated when Elliott was on the steering committee for the farmers’ market and food system study that KK&P completed.
What areas of the food system do you focus on in your work, and where does that fit in with the rest of the work that you do? I focus on three food access areas: Farmers’ markets, school gardens, and healthy corner stores.
My work on farmers’ markets is multifaceted. Besides operating the market run by Mecklenburg County Public Health, I also assist other market managers around our region. I explain how SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps) works and why it’s beneficial. I help designate farmers to markets, and I help support markets where market manager turnover is high.
For my work with school gardens, I work closely with an organization called Out Teach, which used to be called Real School Gardens. They are based in Washington, D.C., with school gardens in the Carolinas and Texas. They develop garden curriculum. We have 18 local schools that have incorporated their curriculum into their classroom programs, including math, science, and art.
My work on healthy corner stores came out of the State of the Plate report [food insecurity study conducted by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Food Policy Council], which I worked on before starting this job. The results of that study confirmed that corner stores would be a beneficial way to promote healthy lifestyles and prevent diet-related illness. I work with 13 independent corner stores to help them incorporate healthier items into their stores. Sometimes that means fruits and vegetables, sometimes it means less processed food. It’s a heart-warming project, more than you would assume. You have to work with the owner and the community – if the community is not interested in the change, it’s not going to be successful.
What do you enjoy about your work? People! I enjoy people. I didn’t realize how much I enjoy working with people until I got out in front of them. I get my success from smiles. Maybe that’s at a farmers’ market, where people are excited they get to purchase fresh produce in their neighborhood. Or going to a classroom and talking to 2nd graders about how to cook and eat vegetables, and they tell me I cook better than they eat at home, or ask if I can come back every day. I feel good about those smiles. Or at corner stores, where people notice this cut watermelon, and now they have the means of accessibility to get it regularly.
Similarly, what do you find challenging about your work? People. (laughs) The politics is challenging. Being a public servant, we’re not supposed to be involved in politics, but it comes in in different phases of our work. Like past disagreements between non-profits, or the idea that I wish I could create the policies to help everyone, but there are zoning considerations or other regulations you have to follow. I wish we could go faster. But faster is not always better. I could go alone very fast, but we can go further together.
Do you consider yourself a food systems planner? Why or why not? No, I do not consider myself a planner. I convene planners. I’m a source of knowledge for planners, so I think I’m part of their support system. Planners come to me and I can help them find the resources, give constructive feedback, etc. I do that a lot with food system partners. I consider that a triumph – whether it’s a college student wanting to learn more about food access or a community member wanting to make a difference in their neighborhood or a non-profit having me as a member of their board. I’m not a planner, I’m an ally.
My education background is in exercise science and health education and promotion, not necessarily public health – my degrees provided interaction with people, not just statistics and books. I learned about healthy behavior change. Now I’m in an MBA Program. People ask me why I’m not studying public administration, but business practices are important in every field. There’s a component of supply and demand in everything we do. Food deserts exist because there aren’t business opportunities. I can be a better gladiator if I know more business lingo. So that when I’m talking to grocers or food businesses, they’re not intimidated by public health.
What is the biggest food systems planning-related hurdle your community/organization faced in recent years and how was it dealt with? In Charlotte I think it has a lot to do with transplants. A lot of people are moving here, just like any other up and coming city. Charlotte is going to turn into a metropolis. I think the society around here is changing to adapt to millennials and people moving here rather than making changes for the people that are already here. It relates to neighborhoods that have historically gone without – without medicine, without food, without good housing, etc. The people who needed it won’t be here by the time those resources are here. One example is grocery stores. The Charlotte Observer recently ran an article about how important median income is to grocery store chains, and because certain neighborhoods don’t have high enough median incomes, they don’t get to have those kinds of establishments. It’s all about money moving in, moving out, and moving to different areas of the city.
How has your perception of food systems planning changed since you first entered the planning field? I was very naïve. I was very naïve about what I was signing up for. I had just left a college campus working in wellness. I thought college kids were difficult. Then I moved to the County and started working with residents and I think kids were easier (laughs). I thought the work was going to be bells and whistles, but I realized there’s an important historical past around food. I always say this – food should be something that equalizes us as people – and it doesn’t. Water, air – food should be in that equation. Charlotte has the potential – coop grocery stores, outdoor learning, urban farms – but it all comes down to funding. This is the second largest banking city in the nation and I hope it puts more money down in its backyard to support those projects.
Who has had the most influence on you as a planner? As a food systems planner? I had the privilege to go to a conference organized by the Fair Food Network, based out of Flint, MI. They have a winter meetup for Double Up Bucks programs, which match SNAP/EBT dollars to bring more healthy options into SNAP households. The first time I went to this meeting, our farmers’ market Double Up program hadn’t been in place yet, and I felt like I was in a room full of mentors and supporters. Everyone was just so helpful. They motivated me to keep doing the good work. They told me that a market isn’t sustainable until you’ve reached the five-year mark, so don’t give up. They’ve kept me motivated through the work that they’ve done. Seeing their success and being able to talk to them is really helpful.
What do you wish you would have known before going to planning school? One thing that often comes up is the relationship between you and the community. I wish I’d learned more about that relationship – between you and stakeholders. That’s so important. You can have the same idea as someone, but it’s all about execution and how you go about it. I see organizations with the same objectives, but they don’t work together. Stakeholder relationships – how to convene those people and how to communicate with them, that’s very important.
Any concluding thoughts? Going into this job, I was the first person to hold this title. I made it the work I thought needed to be done. At first I was nervous about that – what is success? – but it’s perfectly fine to determine your own success in food system work. Whether it’s large or small, celebrate every win. Whether it’s a new vegetable in a school cafeteria, or land given to you for a community garden, or a farmers’ market being producer-only – those are all little wins and support the implementation of important policy change.