Local nonprofit builds ties between farmers and community at large
When the Southeastern region of North Carolina faced a massive job loss and severe poverty five years ago, Leslie Hossfeld, head of the Sociology Department at UNCW, and Mac Legerton, of the Community Action in Lumberton, acted by forming the grass-roots, non-profit organization Feast Down East. By combining their respective knowledge of the Public Sociology Program of UNCW and the Center for Community Action in Lumberton, the organization developed into a “partnership of public and private institutions and agencies among eleven counties along and adjoining the I-74 corridor east of I-95,” according to www.feastdowneast.org.
This is an integral aspect of the organization’s heartfelt intent: to deliver “a vibrant, local food system” to the area. Jane Steigerwald, the director of Feast Down East, and a licensed and registered dietitian with an educational background in nutrition education, wants the nonprofit to better the most ethnically diverse region in North Carolina, which is also one of the three major regions of persistent poverty in North Carolina.
“Because this is a nonprofit, we don’t receive any monetary gains,” Steigerwald explains. “But that’s not what this is about. It’s all about the farmers and how we can help them succeed.”
Although the first two to three years of Feast Down East were characterized by research and data collection, due to funding provided by UNCW, they have been able to assist local farmers to help build sustainable farms. In doing so, Feast Down East provides technical assistance by letting the farmers know what the demand is for certain crops. The organization connects with local buyers, restaurants, grocers, hospitals and schools to provide better food. They also emphasize direct communication with the Buyer’s Club (a contract-based group with a personalized ordering system for both individual and commercial customers) in order to create a communal relationship among the organization. Their expansive coverage provides for an ideal market, including both rural and urban counties to “maximize opportunities and profits for both farmers and restaurants.”
“Basically, if there is any way to get the farmers’ product sold, we try to tap into that,” Steigerwald says.
Such is evident in their advertising—varying from campaigns, billboards and promotional videos, featuring profiles of farmers and local restaurateurs. For instance, on their YouTube channel, they have a dozen videos of local farmers describing their work and motive for not only a profession, but a livelihood.
Margaret Brown of Heritage Produce at Heritage Herb Farm dons a long brunette braid and overalls in her high tunnel. The farming method is made of seven-foot high-bent wires covered in tarp, which extends the farming season for her organic greens and radishes during winter.
Frankie Pridgen of Pridgen Farms in Rocky Point tells of his family history in farming, which dates back to his grandmother. She would load-up trains with okra.
Christin Deener, co-owner of Federal Point Farm, talks about her involvement with a communal farm, and promoting local growers and the importance of supporting this cause.
“There are farmers that have told us that if it wasn’t for us they never would have been able to sell their products,” Molly Rousey, processing and distribution program director, says. According to Steigerwald, through Feast Down East at least 73 jobs have been directly created within the farms and restaurants they have assisted.
Growing up on a farm in Castle Hayne, Rousey not only brings farming expertise, but developed several buying programs to both personal and commericial buyers. There are four different types with which Feast Down East deals: retail, wholesale, online, and rent-a-farm.
Retail and wholesale are typically for costumers buying large quantities or bulk itmes, such as restaurants and grocers . Feast Down East currently works with Circa 1922, Catch, Caprice Bistro, YoSake, Aubriana’s, Manna, The Basics, Cornerstone, Rx, The Bento Box, and grocers such as Tidal Creek Co-Op, Whole’s Foods and Lowe’s Foods. “For these chefs to get off the beaten path and get the best kind of food … it says a lot about them,” Steigerwald notes.
By buying from local farmers and relying on the types of crops that are available during each growing season, it forces chefs and cooks to become more innovative in their recipes. For instance, CAM Café substitutes peanuts for tofu in their miso soup; The Basics also utilizes peanuts, buts roasts them as a side to complement different kinds of meat.
“When we show up with new food, they see it as a whole new color in the rainbow for their palates,” Rousey explains. “They’re artists, and we give them something new to experiment with.”
Feast Down East’s rent-a-farm is arguably the most innovative aspect of their initiative. It gives personal buyers a 10 to 15-dollar budget to buy different types of food from local buyers through a type of CSA. Thus, they are committed to local agriculture but within reasonable price structures.
This approach even has been extended to EBT cards, which is part of the organization’s Food Desert Program. It reaches out to underserved communities with a limited amount of fresh produce and knowledge of innovative dishes with only a few ingredients. To ease this issue, they provide recipes, such as “Radish Toast,” which consists of a toasted baguette, thin slices of radishes, butter, salt and pepper. It acts as a delicious approach to the testament of giving people what they did not know they wanted.
Rousey thinks this new craze for local food really surrounds the idea of being self-sufficient—especially after coming out of a five-year recession and a lot of financial uncertainty for many households. “I think people felt vulnerable and realized, ‘Oh no, what will I do if something goes wrong?’” she questions.
Even so, the idea of growing your own food is one of the most ancient concepts in mankind, an irony that we are just now tapping back into it. Sometimes we need necessary awareness and reminders in times of need.
“Food is the one language we all speak and it breaks all barriers,” Rousey says. “It’s the one thing we can all get on the same page about. I truly believe real, good food can save the planet.”
Future projects for Feast Down East will include urban farming, community and aquaponic gardens, which will target under-served communities that can head their own programs once they have a strong enough support system.
Also, on February 6th, Feast Down East hopes to expand its local food efforts by reaching out to government agencies, leaders and planners at their fourth annual regional conference. Scheduled for from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at UNCW’s Burney Center, Dr. Marcia Caton Campbell, executive director for the Center for Resilient Cities, will kick-off the conference by speaking about urban and regional planning and how it can build resilient community food systems. The conference will include workshops for farmers, would-be farmers, chefs, food buyers, foodies, local food advocates, gardeners, and more advocates.
As well, an Agrarian Stewardship Award presentation will be held at the conference, wherein last year’s winners, Margaret Shelton of Shelton Herb Farm and Chef Tripp Engel of Brasserie du Soleil, pass the torch to the next farmer and chef who have been voted in as major supporters of connecting locally grown food to the community at large.
For more information on the event and to register, head online to www.feastdowneast.org.