In the summer of 2019, a grassroots coalition of stakeholders in Oconee County, SC began planning an event for community leaders and residents to learn about local food system issues and start exploring solutions. The team that formed around this initiative included professionals and advocates of local agriculture, public health, food service, education, and emergency food organizations. Their efforts resulted in a full-day conference called the Oconee Food Summit (OFS) that was held on February 28, 2020 at a church in Seneca, SC with 120 community members in attendance.
The goal of the OFS planning committee was to hold an inaugural event that would serve as a kick-off to collaborative food system work and give attendees an opportunity to determine the priority areas. As a result, afternoon breakout sessions on a broad range of topics were offered and each group was instructed to come back with the main takeaway from their discussion. At the conclusion of the event, attendees of the 2020 Oconee Food Summit voted to: (1) form a food policy council, (2) create a farmers’ market task force, and (3) develop a sustainable land use initiative. A working committee was formed for each at the conclusion of the event, but things took a turn for everyone at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Oconee County took another hit with a devastating EF3 tornado one month following the COVID shutdown, and the work that began with the food summit sadly came to a halt.
Thankfully, in January 2021 after a long hiatus, the OFS organizers were made aware of a new grant program by the University of South Carolina’s SNAP-Ed team for communities across South Carolina aiming to develop or expand a food policy council (FPC). This funding opportunity provided the needed spark to start organizing again, and plans began immediately for a virtual event to pick up where the 2020 Oconee Food Summit had left off. In March 2021, the OFS team was awarded the Local Food Policy Council Development and Expansion Grant and held a successful 2021 OFS Regroup Assembly to reorganize around the key initiative of starting a food policy council for Oconee County.
Following the 2021 Regroup Assembly, a committee of OFS organizers and key stakeholders was formed to begin the process of developing the county’s food policy council. Mandolin Bright, lead organizer for the OFS events, assumed the lead staff role for this initiative with the support of the UofSC SNAP-Ed grant. This committee decided to drop the term “policy” from the council title and opted for the name Oconee Food Council to broaden the scope of the work that the council could engage in and better reflect its grassroots origins.
In October 2021, a nine-member founding council was appointed and Oconee County joined hundreds of other communities across the US that have established food councils to make lasting improvements to their local food system.