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Origins of the Local Food Systems Movement in North Carolina

We kicked off our first class on “Local Food Systems” today, with a strong cadre of students from the MBA program, from agroecology, agriculture, and other areas.  This is an exciting new class that I was tasked to assemble, as part of a grant from the US Department of Agriculture awarded to NC State University.

Nancy Creamer, Professor and Director of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, kicked the class off with an overview of the history of the local food movement.  In the 1990s, a farm in Goldsboro was set aside for NC State University to establish a Center for Environmental Farming systems, to focus on natural resource issues, including soil, water, energy, climate change, biodiversity, and human capital, when we think about local food systems.  The large scale droughts and weather system issues going on during this period played a lot into the decision to start CEFS.  North Carolina has one of the largest number of hogs and poultry in the US, and a lot of discussion came about around the things that can go wrong with our system.  Eventually, this discussion began to focus on how to develop local food systems.  Human ecosystems need to begin to develop local food systems (as opposed to global systems) as a way to have a buffer against the failure of these global systems to provide nutritious, flavorful food.

The local food systems idea was further driven by a grant awarded to Nancy’s team called NC Choices:  Bringing Sustainable Meat to the Marketplace.  There were lawsuits around hog production and things happening, and the NC State team applied for a Kellogg Foundation grant to work with the environmental groups in a positive way.  Rather than just suing to shut it down, the idea was why don’t we work with these entities to buy the product in a way that is sustainable.   Groups like the Sierra Club were identified to partner with to explore ways of growing meat and producing animals in an environmentally friendly fashion.

A big “a-ha” that came out of the NC Choices research was the understanding around the lack of a formal distribution system for local foods.  Nancy notes that “We learned it was all broken in the middle.   There was no way to get food to markets from farmers.  We have more hog processing capacity in North Carolina than anywhere else in the US (or even the world), but there was no place for smaller producers in the contracted supply chain to bring hogs from small farms for processing.  The processors that existed were doing so to process an animal to go back to that person for food (e.g. deer), and they didn’t have the packaging and approaches to go to retail or even farmers’ market.  Further, a lot of the buyers only want certain cuts – so to market the different parts of the entire animal to different venues was impossible.

This led to the NC Growing Together grant, which seeks to connect local food producers to markets.  This effort is a partnership with both private institutions (Lowes Food, MDI, Foster Caviness), military (Fort Bragg), food hubs (Feast Down East, Tractor, and ECO) to work together to find solutions.   The project seeks to bring more locally-produced foods into mainstream markets, strengthening the economics of small to mid-size farm and fishing operations and their community.

As part of this project, the academic component involves this class I am teaching.  We will be teeing up a set of six exciting new projects focused on connecting local producers.  Stay tuned to hear more about these projects next time!