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Faculty Focus: Local Food Leader Named N.C. Extension Educator of the Year

Joanna Massey Lelekacs beside an Extension local foods banner.
Joanna Massey Lelekacs

The oldest and largest sustainable agriculture organization in the Southeast has named Joanna Massey Lelekacs as its North Carolina Extension Educator of the Year.

Lelekacs was honored recently by the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association and the North Carolina Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (NC SARE) for her management of a statewide effort to advance locally grown foods throughout the state.

When Lelekacs came to work for Cooperative Extension in 2011, she brought a broad background – including a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and master’s degrees in landscape architecture and environmental sciences and engineering. She worked for the Center for Environmental Farming Systems coordinating several local and community-based food systems training and outreach efforts before being tapped as coordinator, and then manager, of the newly created Extension Local Foods Flagship Program.

What is the Local Foods Flagship Program, and what’s your role?

The flagship program is a statewide initiative through North Carolina Cooperative Extension designed to facilitate the production, marketing and consumption of locally grown foods. Extension at NC State University and NC A&T State University named local foods as a flagship program in 2012, and I’ve been leading the flagship program since early 2013. As program manager, my work is facilitating development of training and resource materials for Extension agents who are working to support local food systems development in their counties.

Why is local foods such an important issue?

With local foods, we have the opportunity for multiple benefits from the same project. For example, a local foods project can be created to help support farmers at the same time it supports healthy eating and community development for consumers.

There’s research showing that consumers have a lot of expectations around the benefits of local food, like freshness and quality, as well as larger impacts, such as improved health and supporting local economies. So we, as Extension, if we can understand what consumers are expecting from local foods, we can build projects and programs that meet those expectations and generate benefits for both consumers and producers alike.

Communities and other groups are also using local foods to address a number of different community problems, such as addressing health disparities and growing the local economy, ensuring that farmers receive fair compensation for their work and their products, and addressing hunger and food security. And some of that latter part includes improving lower-income consumers’ access to local foods, with the focus on healthful fruits and vegetables.

What role does Extension play in all this?

Extension plays both its traditional educational role and a more nontraditional role of facilitating conversations among the various people and organizations with an interest in local foods. You may have heard of local food councils. There are a number of those throughout the state – probably in the range of 20 to 30. These are very diverse groups of folks coming together to see how they can address these bigger issues in their communities through local food systems. Some agents are helping to lead those conversations and others are on leadership teams supporting those conversations.

Agents are also involved in helping producers connect with markets. For example, we bring farmers and buyers into a room together, and essentially it’s speed dating: Each farmer and buyer has a small amount of time to get to know one another and hopefully build a relationship that leads to sales later on.

We have family and consumer sciences agents who are working in the realm of food and nutrition. Part of that is letting consumers know places to get healthy fruits and vegetables beyond the mainstream markets — and that includes farmers markets, CSAs (community-supported agricultural organizations) and those types of opportunities.

I think local foods programming also provides a great opportunity around building agricultural literacy — building folks’, including youths’, understanding of what it really takes to grow, produce and sell food.

What is your favorite part of your work?

I love to help people help themselves, so I get a lot of pleasure out of helping agents to have the resources they need to support local foods systems development in their communities.

You are a farmer, as well. How did you get into that?

I’ve been helping my husband, Bill, with Dancing Pines Farm since I met him in 2004. … It’s a really small produce farm, and we sell directly to farmers markets and restaurants and co-op groceries. For a couple of years I was the one doing most of the harvesting and selling at the farmers market, but in recent years, my role has been more limited.

What does this connection to farming mean for your work?

My husband inspires me in my daily work because I know firsthand that farming is so challenging, and his passion for growing food for our community despite these challenges keeps me going. My work is about respecting the hard work of farmers and working together with others to ensure that farmers with this strong passion to feed our communities will continue to have viable businesses into the future.

For more Extension information and resources related to local foods, visit the Local Foods Flagship Program’s North Carolina Local Food web portal.