North Carolina’s agriculture industry contributes more than $70 billion annually to the state’s economy and employs more than 20 percent of its workforce. Yet more than 410,000 North Carolinians lack access to affordable, healthy foods.
More than 171 “food deserts” exist in North Carolina, in both rural and urban areas. These communities do not have grocery stores, farmers’ markets or produce stands within one mile in urban areas or 10 miles in rural areas.
The North Carolina Community Development Initiative is using its grant programs to support two organizations that are increasing the capacity and sustainability of North Carolina farmers in order to grow the industry, alleviate poverty and improve the quality of life in their communities.
In Wilmington, Feast Down East is using an Initiative Innovation Fund grant to establish a farmers’ market in a Wilmington Housing Authority neighborhood. It will allow low-income residents to purchase local, healthy food using their Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card.
In Asheville, Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Program is using Community Enterprise Fund grant funding to expand its Appalachian Grown certification program, which connects local farmers with local vendors and, ultimately, local consumers.
“With North Carolina’s economy being largely driven by agriculture, we see the local food movement as a critical economic development strategy,” said Millie Brobston, the Initiative’s program officer for grant investments. “We are investing in programs that make small, local farms more sustainable and help those farmers bring their products to markets that desperately need fresh, healthy foods.”
Strengthening food systems to alleviate poverty and create jobs
Feast Down East is a nonprofit economic and community development initiative created to address the massive job loss and persistent high poverty in southeastern North Carolina. Its programs focus on creating a fully integrated local food system by helping small and limited-resource farmers gain access to markets, such as restaurants, grocers, schools and hospitals, and by connecting local residents to local, healthy food.
Through the Feast Down East Processing and Distribution Program, local chefs, institutions, schools, buyers’ clubs and food desert residents support local farm businesses and keep food dollars in the local economy. Other programs, such as the Farm-to-Chef program and Farm-to-School program, focus on building relationships between local farmers and local buyers. Its Buy Local campaign is a broader effort to encourage consumers to buy locally produced foods. All of these programs drive economic growth for the local agriculture industry.
At its annual regional conference on March 1, Feast Down East provided a wide variety of learning opportunities for farmers and consumers. Sessions examined such topics as “What to Grow: Business Planning & Cost Analysis” and “Supporting Access to Local Food in Your Community.” Homer Marshall, a local farmer with the MSC Farmer Cooperative and director of the Sampson County Community Development Association, said Feast Down East has given farmers in the MSC Farmer Cooperative the opportunity to learn and grow their businesses.
“Feast Down East provides information that is useful in all phases – from purchasing seeds to marketing,” Marshall said. “As a result, we have been able to improve the production of each farmer over the last three years.”
Feast Down East’s Innovation Fund grant funds a pilot program for distributing locally grown food in Wilmington’s low-income communities through a partnership with the Wilmington Housing Authority. The Rankin Terrace Mobile Farmer’s Market provides local, healthy food options to 15-20 low-income residents each week.
“Food sovereignty asserts that food is a basic human right and seeks to build local food systems by connecting key stakeholders in the food systems movement,” said Erin O’Donnell, food sovereignty coordinator for Feast Down East. “The Food Sovereignty program ensures residents situated in [U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service-designated] food deserts have access to affordable, healthy, local food through education, connection, leadership and heritage.”
The Rankin Terrace community is a designated food desert. Once Feast Down East set up its mobile market, the city took notice and increased public transportation options to help residents get to grocery stores.
Feast Down East recently received approval to accept EBT purchases in the Rankin Terrace mobile market and will track its impact on sales. The pilot program also offers cooking demos and nutrition programs for residents.
Growing the local agriculture economy through strategic branding
On the other side of the state, Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) is building thriving local food economies, strong farms and healthy communities in the Appalachian mountain farming region.
Western North Carolina’s geography provides unique challenges for farming, yet more than one-third of the land available for private use in the region is farmland. Most farms in the region are small, and distribution can be challenging.
ASAP provides connections among farmers and restaurants, grocers, schools and markets and a range of business development programs that help farms become more sustainable.
The Initiative’s Community Enterprise Fund grant supports one of ASAP’s most innovative economic development programs – the Appalachian Grown™ branding and certification program.
The Appalachian Grown™ certification is available only to family farms, farmer groups or tailgate markets in southern Appalachian communities in North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. It provides the means for consumers to be aware of whether their food dollars are supporting the local economy and preserving rural culture and the region’s natural beauty.
The Appalachian Grown™ logo is displayed on all products grown by certified farms, as well as in restaurants, distribution centers and grocery stores that purchase certified products. More than 600 farms and 300 businesses in the region are certified.
The economic impact of the program is clear – sales of Appalachian Grown™ certified products have more than tripled, from $17 million in 2007 to $62 million in 2010.
ASAP also operates a variety of other economic development programs, including:
- Annual Business of Farming Conference, which provides training and networking for more than 250 farmers each year
- Extensive research and development projects, through the launch of the Local Food Research Center, which have identified a $400 million-plus market for local food in the Appalachian region
- Growing Minds Farm-to-School program, which has increased access to fresh, locally grown food for more than 50,000 children
- Leading the Southeast in farmers’ market EBT sales through use of EBT in the Asheville City Market to make healthy local food more accessible
The N.C. Community Development Initiative leads North Carolina’s collaborative community economic development effort, driving innovation, investment and action to create prosperous, sustainable communities. For more information, visit www.ncinitiative.org.