Creating Community Capital through Local Food

'Locavores' Infuse Millions into Regional Economies

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Dr. Nancy Creamer is a professor at North Carolina State University and director of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, a collaboration between NC State, North Carolina A&T State University and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture.

Dr. Rick Morse is associate professor of public administration and government in the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Christi Shi Day is program lead for Community Food Strategies, a program of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems in Raleigh, N.C.

John Day is program coordinator for the Center for Environmental Farming Systems in Raleigh, N.C.

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Posted: Tuesday, October 28, 2014 3:05 pm

Americans buy local food for its freshness, to support the local economy, and because they like to know the source of the product, according to a 2009 Food Marketing Institute survey.

Local governments are increasingly focusing on cultivating locally-based, self-reliant, sustainable food economies for many of the same reasons.

“In North Carolina, we eat $45 billion worth of food every year,” said Dr. Nancy Creamer, a distinguished professor at North Carolina State University and director of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, a collaboration between NC State, North Carolina A&T State University and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. “Just imagine a small portion of that going to our local farmers, and the economic engine that inspires.”

Creamer was the moderator of a panel on “Creating Community Capital through Local Food” at the 100th International City/County Management Association (ICMA) Conference, held recently in Charlotte, N.C. The session explored local food through the lens of building community capital, shared success stories and provided information on key resources in building broader community development strategies.

“You can bring some revitalization to your communities through local food systems,” Creamer said. “And from a national perspective, as we face droughts and floods and climate issues, keeping our food supply diverse and spread out across the country is really important.”

The CEFS is celebrating its 20th anniversary of developing sustainable agriculture systems and local food systems, Creamer said. It conducts production systems research on a 2,000-acre facility and works statewide to reduce constraints on developing local food economies.

“I’ve been in this field for 30 years … and there’s really been a sea change,” she said. “It’s wonderful to see the momentum and energy now around local food systems that’s developed over the last 10 years or so. It involves economy, it involves entrepreneurship, it involves health, conservation, sustainability, food access … a lot of things come together around local food systems.”

“When we think about community assets, we need to go beyond our traditional notion of just financial assets. There are seven forms of what we call community capital … and local food systems touch on all seven,” said panelist Dr. Rick Morse, associate professor of public administration and government in the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Morse noted the recent addition of the term “locavore” to popular vocabulary. In 2007, “locavore” was added to the New Oxford American Dictionary as the word of the year and is defined as “a person who attempts to eat food produced within a 100-mile radius.”

In 2012, the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems (CRFS) partnered with ICMA to assess the current status of local government involvement in food systems. They conducted a national survey of local governments concerning their food-related policies, programs, partnerships and plans.

“Nearly 2,000 municipalities and counties from all 50 states responded,” Morse said. “This survey represents the most comprehensive effort to date to quantify the status of local governments’ food-related activities.”

Highlights of the survey results included:

• Farmers markets and emergency food provision plans are widespread. A total of 1,175 communities have at least one food program supported (partially or fully) by the local government (60 percent of total respondents).

• 1,642 communities reported at least one food policy (83.9 percent of total respondents).

• 306 communities have at least one plan that addresses food topics (19 percent of respondents).

• Only 2.5 percent of responding jurisdictions reported the presence of a community development plan that addressed food topics.

• Local governments are most advanced in their support of farmers markets and safety net programs.

• There is a large potential to systematically improve the health and security of vulnerable populations, in particular through planning, policies and collaboration to make significant systemic changes.

• Communities may not be aware of federal resources available to support these activities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass” is a good resource.

“The results provide insight into the ways and lenses through which local governments engage in and view food systems, which may be of interest to good food advocates seeking municipal or county support for their efforts,” Morse said, adding that the survey will be repeated next year. “They also reflect significant potential for innovation, as virtually every type of food-related activity included in the survey was found to exist in every type of community – municipalities and counties, small and large, in every region of the country.”

Christi Shi Day, program lead for Community Food Strategies, a part of the CEFS, shared some North Carolina examples of food initiatives fostering community capital, starting with incubators such as the Piedmont Food & Ag Processing Center in Hillsborough, N.C. The 20,000-square-foot, $1.4 million facility features four kitchens, dry storage, cold and freezer storage, space for catering van access, and business counseling and meeting facilities, all available for hourly rentals.

Eastern Carolina Organics, based in Durham, N.C., is a grower’s cooperative or “food hub,” which aggregates, distributes and markets farm products that are produced regionally or locally, so they can be purchased from wholesale or retail or institutional markets. Started in 2005 with a $48,000 Tobacco Trust Fund grant, it has grown to more than 70 growers, 130 customers, five staff and $2.7 million in sales from a 26,000-square-foot warehouse.

“Small-scale farms often don’t have the volume or continuity of products to be able to carry large-scale accounts, so they come together in food hubs,” Shi Day said.

The Sandhills Farm to Table Cooperative is an example of community-supported agriculture, or CSA.

“People in the community buy a subscription at the beginning of the season and the farmer delivers a share of the harvest,” Shi Day said.

Incubated by Cooperative Extension in Moore County, N.C., Sandhills drew 3.5 percent of the local population to subscribe in its second year. Its community impact also has been impressive – 38,000 volunteer hours to deliver the food, which raised funds for a variety of local causes; more than three tons of produce donated to neighbors; 22,000 boxes delivered to more than 1,500 members; $320,000 to family farmers and artisans, and $40,000 contributed to community schools, churches and organizations for hosting a gathering site.

Core Sound Seafood on Harkers Island, N.C., is a community-supported fishery (CSF). The group buys from other fishermen in the community, assembles “shares” (four pounds of fish from two species per week over 10 weeks) and sends them to subscribers. Direct sales – as with farmers’ markets – results in more money to producers. In 2012, the prices averaged $450 per share ($225 per half share), or $11.25 per pound. The fish are caught, cleaned and filleted within 48 hours of delivery, and shareholders receive information about who caught the fish and how, photos and stories from the coast, and recipes.

Slow Money North Carolina provides peer-to-peer lending to finance small businesses. Loans are made at very modest rates of interest, typically 2-5 percent. As of December 2012, more than 60 loans were made to more than 30 Slow Money North Carolina food entrepreneurs and/or local food businesses around the state, totaling more than $600,000. Nationally, $35 million has been invested in more than 300 small food enterprises around the United States through 19 local Slow Money chapters and 10 investment clubs.

Shi Day’s husband, John Day, is program coordinator for CEFS. He worked on a number of different local food initiatives as the former manager of Cabarrus County in North Carolina, near Charlotte, from 2007-2012. Back then, the county of about 168,000 residents was seeing a decline of manufacturing and large job losses, and rapid, sprawling development at the expense of farmland.

“Our approach was trying to find the sweet spot between community engagement policies and programs,” Day said. “We tried to hear the concerns people had and develop projects that would improve the quality of life.”

In 2007, the county invited a variety of stakeholders to participate in development of land use plans and regulations. In 2009, the Lomax Incubator Farm was launched on 30 acres of county-owned and bequeathed land, funded by a local grant. Managed and maintained by county staff, the NC Cooperative Extension trained program participants who paid $240 a year to learn to farm. The products were sold in the Lowes Foods grocery chain and farmers markets.

That same year saw the establishment of the Cabarrus County Agricultural Development and Farm Preservation Trust Fund, using proceeds from taxes and interest received as a result of land exiting the present-use value program. The fund supports public and private enterprise programs that promote profitable and sustainable farms and food businesses and provides for the purchase of farmland conservation agreements.

A local food policy council started in 2010 to identify and strengthen connections between food, health, natural resource protection, economic development and the agriculture community. Made up of community members from across all sectors, it developed a county food purchasing policy that calls for local sourcing of at least 10 percent of all food served at county catered events and small department-sponsored meetings from food producers within North Carolina. The following year, the council rolled out a locally-grown certification program to foster stronger connections between residents and farmers.

The county also invested in a variety of local food development projects. Cruse Meats, a public/private partnership, operated a 4,545-square-foot processing facility to support meat grown in and around the county (including more than 7,000 head of livestock) for local markets. Grants and local sources paid for about half of the $1.2 million project.

In the end, however, a change in local elected leaders after Day left his post brought budget cuts that ended many of the initiatives.

“As a manager, you often have the ability to push something through if you think it’s needed,” Day said. “Sometimes, a slower approach can build deeper roots that don’t depend on the government to keep operating. We’ve built that into our processes now at the CEFS.”

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