Southeastern North Carolina Food Systems Project

Project Overview

GS08-067
Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2008: $10,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Grant Recipient: University of North Carolina Wilmington
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Graduate Student:
Major Professor:
Leslie Hossfeld
University of North Carolina Wilmington

Commodities

  • Agronomic: corn, soybeans
  • Fruits: melons
  • Vegetables: cucurbits, eggplant, sweet potatoes
  • Additional Plants: tobacco
  • Animals: bovine, poultry, swine
  • Animal Products: meat

Practices

  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems

    Abstract:

    Integrated local food systems are able to bridge institutional buyers with small and medium sized farmers creating vibrant, sustainable economies. In order to develop and coordinate a local and regional food system in Southeastern North Carolina, significant research is needed to determine market opportunities and production capacity to fulfill these opportunities. Assessment of direct markets including: the public school system in the six county region, independently owned restaurants and grocers, UNC system universities and regional hospitals, will allow the interests and needs of these institutions concerning participation in local food systems to be identified and documented. Only through the identification of these needs can local food purchasing be approached systematically. Furthermore, the capacity of regional growers must be assessed concerning their growing interest and ability. This, combined with the market assessment, will enable farmers to maximize their profits through accumulated information about available markets and demanded products. This will enable farmers and institutional buyers to be optimally paired through product and quantity demand and/or supply. Local food systems are able to address many problems associated with our current food system and provide alternatives that contribute to the local economy and the health of a community without depleting natural resources. In order to implement such a system, a strong foundation must be secured through research identifying the specific needs of the region that must be addressed. Researching and assessing the market opportunities and production capabilities will significantly inform the development of the Southeastern North Carolina Food Systems Project.

    Tables, figures or graphs mentioned in this report
    are on file in the Southern SARE office.
    Contact Sue Blum at 770-229-3350 or
    sueblum@uga.edu for a hard copy.

    Introduction

    Food is inextricably connected to every living organism. As human beings, we rely on food to give us stamina and energy in order to sustain us throughout our daily lives. Whether the relationship to food is food production or consumption, society, politics, the environment and the economy are all affected by this relationship. However, the current food production and consumption processes have begun to strain our health, local communities, regions and states.

    Our current food system relies on large monoculture productions that utilize exorbitant amounts of pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides. Run-off from these chemicals goes into our rivers, lakes, ground water and streams; soil is stripped of its nutrients; and the air is polluted as food is transported an average of 1300 miles from where it was produced (Allen, 2004). Rural economies and the environment are suffering, the source of our food is unknown, and food disease is rampant. The corporate food chain has grown so long, that consumers no longer know where their food was grown, how it was processed and how it was treated during transportation (Norberg-Hodge, Merrifield & Gorelick, 2002). Thus, individuals have begun to seek an alternative food system that relies on sustainably grown, locally distributed products (Lang, Barling and Caraher, 2001; Allen, 2004).

    Benefits of Community Food Systems

    An alternative food system where food is produced, processed, distributed and consumed within one locality would address the environmental, economic, political and social problems associated with our current food system. Community food systems emphasize sustainable food production, local distribution and local consumption of foods and keep food dollars within a region or community. Community food systems can also create jobs needed for the production, processing and distribution of food.

    The social benefits that can be produced through the establishment of a community food system include greater community cohesion from increased interaction among growers, processors, distributors, and buyers within a local division of labor, which produces a collective understanding of the importance of the production and consumption of local foods (Ritzer, 2008). Increased equity in the food system as well as increased access to more nutritious foods are other social benefits that result from community food systems.

    In addition to social benefits, community food systems may also have many environmental benefits. Community food systems decrease air pollution created through the transportation of foods, by keeping food produced locally, consumed locally (Wilkins & Eames- Sheavly, n.d.; Norberg-Hodge et, al., 2002; Wright, 2006). Community food systems create a need and demand for more farms and thus farmland preservation (Norberg-Hodge et, al., 2002; Dillon, 2007). Preserving open space also provides carbon absorbing foliage that cleans the air and retains nutrients in the soil.

    Community food systems encourage sustainable, bio-diverse production. Sustainable production enhances the environment in a variety of ways. For example, small-scale farmers are able to increase yields through growing many crops together, naturally deterring pests associated with large-scale monoculture production, which significantly decreases the need for heavy pesticides, fertilizers and other petro-chemicals. This also decreases the chances for food-borne illnesses, especially large-scale outbreaks. Sustainable production encourages preservation of the natural environment by building up the soil through natural amendments like compost and manure and does not leach chemicals into the ground and ground water.

    Lastly, community food systems produce economic benefits. Community food systems keep food dollars circulating within a community and can produce a multiplier effect that leads to job creation and economic growth. A greater percentage of each food dollar spent in local food purchasing is returned to the farmer (Allen, 2004; Meter & Rosales, 2001; Department of City and Regional Planning UNC- Chapel Hill, 2008). This increases farmers’ incomes and keeps money in the local economy, which can lead to the strengthening of rural economic bases.

    Because of the many benefits that community food systems can have for local economies, the environment and communities, many people are seeking to implement them where they live. There are a variety of ways in which community food systems can be instituted. Initiatives have included community or school gardens, community supported agriculture programs (CSA’s), farmers’ markets, and direct marketing to restaurants and institutions. All of these initiatives require different strategies and tactics for implementation according to their different goals. This current project will focus on direct marketing to institutions. There are many advantages to incorporating institutions into community food system programs. Institutions provide a large, secure market for farmers with predictable demand, eliminating many of the risks involved with growing new crops speculatively (Department of City and Regional Planning UNC- Chapel Hill, 2008).

    Institutional Purchasing

    Institutions are some of the largest purchasers of food, especially in rural areas. Public schools, universities, community colleges, hospitals and prisons are examples of institutional buyers that consistently serve hundreds to thousands of meals per day. Institutions once relied on local products to serve their customers; however, national food processors and distributors are the major suppliers of food to institutions today (Bellows, Dufour & Bachmann, 2003). In order to change this process and enable local producers to sell their food to institutions, program coordination, local processors, and local distribution centers must be established. When farmers sell to local institutions, they gain access to reliable markets and allow consumers within these intuitions exposure to healthier, more nutritious foods (Department of City and Regional Planning UNC- Chapel Hill, 2008). Additionally, through a local purchasing relationship, institutions invest directly into the local economy.

    In order for farmers to sell to institutional buyers, much planning and coordination is needed between numerous constituents. Each institutional buyer has its own set of standards and regulations that it follows for purchasing produce. In addition, institutions differ in purchasing and procurement policies and procedures, distribution networks, processing facilities and labor (Dillon, 2007; Bellows et, al., 2003; Harmon, 2004; Burlington Food Council, 2004; Izumi, Rostant, Moss, & Hamm,2006). Navigating these issues requires that researchers address barriers before steps can be taken to implement institutional buying programs (Bellows et. al., 2003; Burlington Food Council, 2004).

    Barriers and Challenges to Institutional Purchasing

    Both institutional buyers and farmers face critical constraints in their ability to participate in local food purchasing programs (Dillon, 2007; Harmon, 2004; Bellows et, al., 2003; Izumi et, al., 2006; Burlington Food Council, 2004). Research conducted on institutional buying programs between public schools and farmers found that federal and state procurement regulations, lack of products available during certain times of the year, and lack of local producers within close proximity were barriers to public schools buying local foods (Izumi et, al., 2006). Other concerns with institutional purchasing of local foods have included cost, reliable supply, food safety, delivery, quality and the effort required to buy local produce. Allen and Guthman (2006) identified getting the produce from the farm to the institution (delivery) as the biggest operational challenge. Logistical and management concerns in a National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service Study included finding the types of normally consumed food by customers locally, availability of kitchen and storage facilities, food preparation skills of employees, cost of local foods, access to processing facilities, available supply of local products, food quality and food safety oversight, and delivery (Bellows et, al., 2003).

    Barriers are also evident for farmers in the participation of local food purchasing programs. Farmer constraints include limitations in production, processing, storage and transportation (Dillon, 2007). Small-scale farmers often cannot produce all the fresh produce needed by institutions. In addition, institutions are increasingly relying on pre-processed and pre-packaged foods. Due to lack of access to processing facilities, farmers find it difficult to process and package their products in ways that institutions can utilize them. Lastly, farmers often do not have the storage or the transportation abilities to either cool produce or deliver it to the institutions. A New Jersey assessment found supply, seasonality and distribution to be the greatest challenges facing both institutions and farmers (Harmon, 2004).

    To understand the challenges for the implementation of a local food purchasing program, several agencies and organizations have conducted community food assessments (Burlington Food Council, 2004; Harmon, 2004; Izumi et, al., 2006; Joshi, Azuma & Feenstra, 2008; United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, 2000). Community food assessments examine community food issues and assets in order to facilitate change actions such as policy advocacy and program development (Pothukuchi, Joseph, Burton & Fisher, 2002;Cook, Morgan, Radenovic & Renzi, 2007; Cohen, 2002). Conducting a community food assessment for a farm-to-institution initiative involves understanding the potential demand and opportunities for institutional purchasing, especially farm-to-school purchasing; the identification and recruitment of farmers that could supply institutions with products as well as the needs, challenges and opportunities for these local farmers, especially limited resource farmers; and the market opportunities for farmers through farmers’ markets, organic production and competitive pricing.

    Agriculture in Southeastern North Carolina
    Southeastern North Carolina is a large rural region with Wilmington as its major coastal city. The region has lost more manufacturing jobs than any rural region in NC and perhaps the nation (www.povertyeast.org/jobs). It is also the most ethnically diverse region in NC and in Rural America. It is one of the three regions of persistent poverty in NC. The six Southeastern counties examined in this research comprise more Native Americans than any region east of the Mississippi and are home to the Lumbee, the largest tribe in Eastern US, and the Waccamaw-Siouan. Additionally, there is a significant low-income, African American population comprising 24% of the six county population, of which 30% are in poverty. There is extensive farming and farmland in the rural counties, but farming continues to serve the export economy rather than local food needs. Furthermore, development of interests and rising competition of large agribusinesses have threatened small and medium sized farms.
    Major research is key to the development of the regional food system in Southeastern NC. This research project will assess market opportunities and capacities to creating a major institutional buying system of farm products on the local and regional level. There are two universities, several regional hospitals, and public school systems in the region that are viable markets. There are also hundreds of privately-owned, restaurants and groceries that are potential purchasers of local foods. Research is also needed to identify limited resource farmers and assess their needs and challenges in transitioning from export to local food production. Market and farm assessments will provide important information on how the local food system will add economic value to both the farm and food economy. This research will further demonstrate the advantages of developing a sustainable agricultural system, including increased farm production, profits, and employment; economic security; creation of new food processing and distribution centers, reduced purchasing costs; fresh and more nutritious foods, and decreased use of chemical intensive farm practices that deplete the region’s natural resources.
    Objectives
    The purpose of this project is to conduct research that will support the development of the SENC Food System (SENCFS) Project. The goal of SENCFS is to increase the economic viability of the family farm system of agriculture in Southeastern North Carolina. Through a systematic approach of creating a local and regional food system, the SENCFS project will connect, sustain, and expand small and medium sized, limited-resource farmers to new and emerging institutional buyers and markets.
    This investigation was framed around the following questions:
    1. What is the potential demand and opportunities for developing an institutional buying system of local foods in Southeastern NC?
    2. What are the needs, challenges and interests of limited resource farmers in moving from export food production to local food production
    3. What are the institutional buying patterns and expenses of institutional buyers in Southeastern NC?
    4. What are the direct market opportunities for local food purchasing?
    5. What are the opportunities and challenges for local and regional farm to school projects?
    6. Who are the small and medium sized farmers in Southeastern NC?
    7. What is the present and emerging production of organic foods in Southeastern NC?
    These questions were answered through the following activities: review of pertinent literature, surveying farmers, interviews with farmers, surveying institutions, interviews with public school Child Nutrition Directors, and interviews with Farmers’ Market Managers. The report details the findings of the research objectives in the following chapters concluding with suggestions of strategies for the creation of a local and regional food system in Southeastern NC.

    Project objectives:

    The purpose of this project is to conduct research that will support the development of the SENC Food System (SENCFS) Project. The goal of SENCFS is to increase the economic viability of the family farm system of agriculture in Southeastern North Carolina. Through a systematic approach of creating a local and regional food system, the SENCFS project will connect, sustain, and expand small and medium sized, limited-resource farmers to new and emerging institutional buyers and markets.
    This investigation was framed around the following questions:
    1. What is the potential demand and opportunities for developing an institutional buying system of local foods in Southeastern NC?
    2. What are the needs, challenges and interests of limited resource farmers in moving from export food production to local food production
    3. What are the institutional buying patterns and expenses of institutional buyers in Southeastern NC?
    4. What are the direct market opportunities for local food purchasing?
    5. What are the opportunities and challenges for local and regional farm to school projects?
    6. Who are the small and medium sized farmers in Southeastern NC?
    7. What is the present and emerging production of organic foods in Southeastern NC?
    These questions were answered through the following activities: review of pertinent literature, surveying farmers, interviews with farmers, surveying institutions, interviews with public school Child Nutrition Directors, and interviews with Farmers’ Market Managers. The report details the findings of the research objectives in the following chapters concluding with suggestions of strategies for the creation of a local and regional food system in Southeastern NC.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.