The North Carolina Local Food Council (NCLFC) serves as a collaborative network across different organizations and state agencies to support the stateâs local food systems and producers. The council was created with the help of NCÂ 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.
âOne of the main pinch points we saw early on was cold storage,â says Angel Cruz, NCLFC coordinator and NCÂ State academic and extension initiatives manager for the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS). âA 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 didnât have the storage capacity.â
Thousands of pounds of local and perfectly good produce was dumped because there wasnât a place to store it all. Cruz says it was happening all over North Carolina. Cruz and her colleagues, including Hannah Dankbar, NCÂ 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.Â
âIf the council didnât exist, Iâm not sure these conversations would have happened and we would not have collaborated to find solutions during the pandemic,â says Yao.
âNancy Creamer, professor emeritus with NCÂ 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,â Cruz says.
One of those hubs was the High Country Food Hub in Watauga County.
âWeâre an online farmersâ market. We do direct sales to customers and work with 83 different local food producers,â says Dave Walker, development director at Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture, which operates the food hub. âThe pandemic really affected how we operate.â
Pre-pandemic, Walker says the food hub served about 120 customers a week with sales right around $5,000. âIn 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.â
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 Syscoâs refrigerated trucks for about three months during the pandemic.
âWith restaurants shut down, I feel like Sysco was glad to have their resources being put to good use,â Walker shares. âWe 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,â 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.
âAll of these students were losing their internships because of the shutdown,â Cruz says. âSo we developed an internship for students to use their social media and marketing skills.â
âWe saw that online presence was a pretty big need right away,â says Dankbar. âOne 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 didnât have to scramble for funding.â
While some producers were struggling, there were a few who were staying afloat.
âWe noticed the producers that were surviving the lockdown were those that pivoted to direct marketing,â says Barry Nash, NCÂ State seafood technology marketing specialist with North Carolina Sea Grant and the current chair of the council. âThe 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.â
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.
âI worked mainly with Barry to help seafood producers build an online presence. That included online sales, marketing tools and website redesign.â She essentially redesigned and launched multiple new websites for producers like Mattamuskeet Seafood.
âSienna 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,â says Callie Carawan of Mattamuskeet Seafood. Carawan says her pre-pandemic process was word-of-mouth and phone calls.Â
âSienna was very informative and gave me detailed instructions on how to manage the site once she was done. She was really helpful and great,â Carawan says.
âThis 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,â Nash says.