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A Necessary Network for Local Foods

A man wearing a mask and holding up fresh produce
A customer picking up local products at the High Country Food Hub's downtown Boone location.

The North Carolina Local Food Council (NCLFC) serves as a collaborative network across different organizations and state agencies to support the state’s local food systems and producers. The council was created with the help of NC State Extension and became centerstage during the statewide shutdown in 2020, helping fisheries, producers and food banks navigate through food security and supply chain issues.

“One of the main pinch points we saw early on was cold storage,” says Angel Cruz, NCLFC coordinator and NC State academic and extension initiatives manager for the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS). “A lot of schools, restaurants, universities and hospital cafeterias were shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. All of this food was all of a sudden donated to food banks or food pantries but they didn’t have the storage capacity.”

Thousands of pounds of local and perfectly good produce was dumped because there wasn’t a place to store it all. Cruz says it was happening all over North Carolina. Cruz and her colleagues, including Hannah Dankbar, NC State Extension local food program manager, and Joyce Yao, program associate for NCLFC, began meeting weekly with other folks from other organizations to see how they could help. 

“If the council didn’t exist, I’m not sure these conversations would have happened and we would not have collaborated to find solutions during the pandemic,” says Yao.

“Nancy Creamer, professor emeritus with NC State and the former director of CEFS, proved to be a valuable asset. She reached out to Sysco about their cold storage and delivery trucks to see if they could be used at local food hubs and food pantries who were having all of this extra demand for local food,” Cruz says.

One of those hubs was the High Country Food Hub in Watauga County.

“We’re an online farmers’ market. We do direct sales to customers and work with 83 different local food producers,” says Dave Walker, development director at Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture, which operates the food hub. “The pandemic really affected how we operate.”

Pre-pandemic, Walker says the food hub served about 120 customers a week with sales right around $5,000. “In March 2020, we started to see a significant uptick in sales. By May, we were doing around $30,000 in sales a week and serving more than 500 customers.”

At the time, the hub had one small walk-in cooler. But with doing six times the sales, Walker says they needed more space for cold storage products like milk, eggs and vegetables. Through the help of NCLFC, Walker was able to borrow one of Sysco’s refrigerated trucks for about three months during the pandemic.

The food hub’s root storage area where extra produce was stored.

“With restaurants shut down, I feel like Sysco was glad to have their resources being put to good use,” Walker shares. “We were in a good position for the pandemic, but when folks went back to work, picking up food became more challenging as the hub was not part of their daily commute. So, our next project is to have additional pickup locations at offices, community centers and churches,” Walker says.

In addition to helping food hubs, NCLFC helped farmers and other food producers with direct marketing to consumers through a paid internship program for students.

“All of these students were losing their internships because of the shutdown,” Cruz says. “So we developed an internship for students to use their social media and marketing skills.”

“We saw that online presence was a pretty big need right away,” says Dankbar. “One of the strengths of the statewide network was that one of the member organizations, Self-Help Credit Union, saw the need as well and funded the RISE to Local Foods Internship program. We didn’t have to scramble for funding.”

While some producers were struggling, there were a few who were staying afloat.

“We noticed the producers that were surviving the lockdown were those that pivoted to direct marketing,” says Barry Nash, NC State seafood technology marketing specialist with North Carolina Sea Grant and the current chair of the council. “The council wanted to see if there was any way that we could help these producers and small businesses develop digital platforms that could allow them to connect directly with consumers.”

Sienna Zuco, a University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill graduate, was one of those interns who helped several producers, mostly on the coast, with revamping their websites to focus on more direct marketing to customers. Zuco now serves as a communications assistant for the NCLFC.

“I worked mainly with Barry to help seafood producers build an online presence. That included online sales, marketing tools and website redesign.” She essentially redesigned and launched multiple new websites for producers like Mattamuskeet Seafood.

“Sienna did a great job with updating our website. It was a wonderful benefit and we sold more crab cakes during that time than we normally do,” says Callie Carawan of Mattamuskeet Seafood. Carawan says her pre-pandemic process was word-of-mouth and phone calls. 

“Sienna was very informative and gave me detailed instructions on how to manage the site once she was done. She was really helpful and great,” Carawan says.

“This was one of several projects we worked on in order to help small businesses pivot more successfully toward direct marketing. This would not have happened if the council had not been in existence,” Nash says.