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More on the importance of human relationships in local food systems

Ben Filippo is Food System Coordinator for the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, a farmer driven membership based 501c3 non profit organization to help people in the Carolinas grow and eat locally.  He also spoke in my class this week.  Ben notes that “a big chunk of what we do are work with artisans and our technical services and our internal focus group teams are advocacy, food systems, policy, and education (public facing sustainable agriculture issues).  We help people think about the implications of state and local policy and how they impact the Southeast.”

Ben emphasized in his presentation that local food systems are not just for the “affluent” anymore.  In his earlier work in New York, he found that many of the local “foodies” were affluent people who thought it was fashionable to support local farmers.  “Local farmers” in this case often meant wealthy financial executives who retired to farms they bought, and sold $8 Kale in farmers markets!

No, local food systems is really about feeding people who may have much more limited options.  Ben notes that “We have 85 rural counties in this state – 73 of them are poverty stricken.  Most have no idea on how to get local food into people’s hands.  So how can we leverage existing progress in parts of the state, not trying to duplicate efforts, but to harness energy that already exists.

He cited the example of Stokes County in North Carolina, which has only three small towns: King, Danbury, and Walnut Cove. The overall county has 35% of its population under the poverty line.  The total development budget for the entire county is $180,000.  For most people living in these places, this is where food is produced, and where people live who would like to eat their food.

There are only four farmers markets in Stokes County and people are disbursed throughout the county.  Tax leakage is elsewhere, since people buy things in Winston-Salem.  There are few people there with consistent income streams who can be consumers. Restaurants are not independently operated and those rely on a consumer base that is not doing well, and margins are slim and don’t believe local procurement can be passed on the consumer.  There is really only one consistent center of revenue:  the people who work for the municipality are the only ones who have the revenue to buy local products.  There is no university or community college.

But there is one person who can change this picture:   the county nutrition director for Stokes County Schools.  The schools feed tens of thousands of children.  If that person cares enough to think about how to integrate local foods into people’s diet, there is an opportunity.  And this is starting to happen because of the human relationships in other areas.  For example, three diversified vegetable producers will be selling their product from Beaufort County into the Beaufort County school system because of human relationships.  Long reports are necessary and important – but in the end, individuals harness a great deal of power in attempts to change an existing system.