By Adam Beyer
As a Food System Finance Fellow, Kharmika Alston MPP’12 splits her time between the Self-Help Credit Union in downtown Durham and the World Food Policy Center at the Sanford School. Alston’s job is to work with food entrepreneurs of color from across North Carolina, providing technical assistance for securing financing and helping create networks for sharing best practices.
“There are many programs seeking to provide loans to food entrepreneurs but there’s a disparity for entrepreneurs of color in their loan readiness that we are trying to target,” Alston said.
Self-Help is seeking to loan $15 million to food entrepreneurs who are expanding access to healthy foods in their communities, and intends for more than half that amount to go to entrepreneurs of color. A food entrepreneur can be a farmer who adds value to his or her products, a community gardener, a restauranteur or even a food waste processor. So far, Alston has reached out to more than 40 businesses.
Alston described her role as being like a quarterback who helps marshal various forms of assistance to businesses.
Addressing Historical Inequities
The work seeks to address historical inequities, Alston said. Although food businesses in general can have problems securing financing, African Americans in particular have been the victims of policy decisions that denied them access to financing.
For example, Kharmika helped a black farming couple in North Durham that provides locally sourced food to many of Durham’s top restaurants secure a $9,000 grant to transition into hydroponic farming, an innovative technique that uses less soil and water yet increases production. Because of the grant money, the farmers have been able to leverage loan financing to quicken their expansion.
“When it comes to our financial institutions, communities of color were systematically left out and have differing comfort levels with going into a lending institution and seeking a loan,” she said.
In rural areas, communities of color suffered large amounts of land loss as a result of racist policies promulgated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
At the World Food Policy Center, she also studies how food-related businesses can be an economic driver in North Carolina, specifically in Durham and Edgecombe counties.
Alston, a Greensboro, N.C., native, received her undergraduate degree in international affairs from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2009. After working in policy offices and for political campaigns after graduation, she applied for and got the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Graduate Fellowship.
The fellowship fully supports graduate study and provides professional development opportunities for members of underrepresented groups. After earning a degree, recipients are expected to work in the Foreign Service for at least five years.
Knowing what her post-Sanford job would be allowed her to tailor her studies, and she chose to focus on economic policy. During her second year, in 2011, she studied abroad in Berlin through Sanford’s exchange program there. At the time, the Euro Zone was in turmoil, so being in Europe watching financial policy deliberations was fascinating, she said.
Alston cited Cory Krupp as an influential professor for her course on international trade. Tom Taylor’s course on policy writing was also critical.
She completed her policy internship at the U.S. Embassy in Qatar, and wrote her master’s thesis on migrant labor in Gulf nations.
After graduation, her first Foreign Service placement was as a political and economic affairs officer at the U.S. Consulate in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, a town across the Rio Grande River from Texas.
“There, I used a lot of the things I learned at Sanford—writing a policy memo, relationship building, relationship mapping—to further the bilateral relationship between the United States and Mexico, especially as it relates to South Texas,” she said.
After a two-year tour of duty in Mexico, she served as a consular officer in Amsterdam. Consular officers determine visa eligibility for foreign nationals and aid Americans who have problems abroad. That work was demanding, Alston said.
“It was a rigorous experience dealing with any issue an American could have abroad,” Alston said. “I have so many stories from those two years.”
Food and Justice
After much reflection, she decided she wanted to return to the United States. In December, a few months after returning to Durham, where her husband is from, she found her current job.
“This work aligns with my personal passions and I have the opportunity to learn a lot and work on issues of food justice and justice generally in North Carolina,” Alston said.
She encouraged Sanford students to educate themselves about ideas of race, equity and inclusion.
“If you leave here without having an understanding and appreciation for that, you are doing the American people a disservice as a policy professional,” she said.