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CEFS celebrates two decades of transforming North Carolina’s food system

In 1994, a task force of university faculty and administrators, state and federal agencies, non-governmental organizations, farmers, and citizens was charged with developing strategies to build a sustainable agriculture program in North Carolina. N.C. State University, N.C. A&T State University and the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services formed a unique partnership – and the Center for Environmental Farming Systems was born.

“Rooted in its founding partnerships, CEFS has been able to grow its work by building great relationships with nonprofit organizations, local communities, and food system leadership across the state,” says Dr. John O’Sullivan, CEFS director from N.C. A&T.

In April, CEFS kicked off its 20th anniversary celebration with a lecture and reception with Dr. Ricardo Salvador, director of the food and environment program for the Union of Concerned Scientists. The celebration will continue into this fall with a SOILbration and reunion for past faculty, interns and apprentices, Oct. 17-18.

Salvador, former W.K. Kellogg Foundation Food and Society program officer, was instrumental in awarding endowments to N.C. State and N.C. A&T that created the W.K. Kellogg Distinguished Professorships in Sustainable Agriculture and Community-Based Food Systems at both institutions.

“We saw CEFS and the partnership between N.C. State and N.C. A&T as a national model for food systems change, one in which they could leverage their institutional partnerships, innovative civic engagement programs and supply chain expertise to transform the state’s food system to make it not only more sustainable, but also more equitable for vulnerable communities who often lack access to local and fresh foods,” Salvador said.

CEFS’ work began with a 2,000-acre research farm in Goldsboro, home to CEFS’s core research programs and units: the Farming Systems Research Unit, Pasture-Based Dairy and Beef Units, Alternative Swine Unit, Organic Research Unit and Small Farm Unit. It is now one of the nation’s top research and demonstration facilities for organic and sustainable production systems.

“The success of the CEFS research and demonstration program is directly related to the cooperative partnership of N.C. State, N.C. A&T and NCDA&CS and also to the long-term, multidisciplinary approach to both applied and basic research questions,” says Andy Meier, CEFS research operations manager.

Building on its initial successes, CEFS broadened its focus to include community-based food systems and local food supply chain development. CEFS formed N.C. Choices to promote the advancement of local, niche and pasture-based meat supply chains. Partnering with community organizations, CEFS also developed youth engagement and leadership development initiatives including Students Working for an Agricultural Revolutionary Movement (SWARM) and the Food Youth Initiative.

Visitors attend a field day at the CEFS Beef Unit.
Visitors attend a field day at the CEFS Beef Unit.

Extension and outreach programs – including the Seasons of Sustainable Agriculture workshop series, Farm to Fork picnic and annual sustainable agriculture lecture – were designed to engage the public on a variety of food systems topics. Now these programs reach more than 2,500 people each year.

CEFS’ apprenticeship and internship programs have grown to attract students from across North Carolina and around the globe. New educational programs – including N.C. A&T’s Discover Ag and N.C. State’s Agroecology Program – reach students from elementary school through college.

In 2008 and 2009, CEFS convened food system stakeholders across the state in regional meetings and a statewide summit to transform North Carolina’s food system. The statewide “From Farm to Fork” action plan was created, outlining game-changing strategies for building local food economies.

One of these strategies, the N.C. 10% Campaign, encourages all North Carolinians and businesses to commit 10 percent of their food dollars to locally grown and produced foods and to record purchases on the campaign website. Since 2010, the campaign has tracked more than $61 million in local foods purchases by more than 7,000 individuals and 950 businesses.

CEFS turned to the health impacts of increasing access to local, fresh produce, partnering with N.C. 4-H to host FoodCorps North Carolina. FoodCorps service members work to change children’s attitudes and behaviors toward food through nutrition education, school gardens and greater access to healthy, local produce.

The N.C. Growing Together project, funded by the USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture, was initiated to bring more locally produced foods – including meat, dairy, produce and seafood – into mainstream retail and food service supply chains. The project, which focuses on retail grocery and military base models, has dozens of statewide partners including Lowes Foods and the Fort Bragg U.S. Army installation.

“As we celebrate our 20th anniversary, it’s inspiring to look back at the impact CEFS has had, while at the same time envisioning our work going forward: creating a future of vibrant farms, sustainable ecosystems, thriving communities, healthy people and robust local economies,” says Dr. Nancy Creamer, CEFS director from N.C. State.

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