Local Food Hub Making a Difference in its Community
January 12, 2022
For some, the last couple of months has been full of over-indulging, food comas, and even meat sweats. Many of us celebrated by getting together with friends and family where we enjoyed abundant holiday meals. Yet for many others, it wasn’t that simple.
The lack of access to affordable, healthy, local food is an urgent issue for communities in North Carolina. It’s a frustrating one given the fact that our state is ranked in the top 10 nationally as it pertains to agriculture and in the bottom 10 when it comes to food security. How can a state that produces so much food be a place where certain communities cannot consistently enjoy the benefits of healthy food options? This has been an issue for years, and the ongoing pandemic has pulled the curtain back more to reveal just how prevalent it is.
However, while attending a recent grantee site visit, my eyes were opened to the work of an organization that is providing real hope for their county and making great strides in ensuring that fresh food is getting into the hands of more residents in the community.
Working Landscapes is a rural development organization founded in 2010 by Carla Norwood, PhD and her husband Gabriel Cumming, PhD. Its headquarters is located in the community where Carla grew up, and it’s clear how much she cares about Warren County.
The overarching mission of Working Landscapes focuses on building a better quality of life in rural communities by leveraging the value of community assets. At its core, Working Landscapes is a food hub, which is defined as a business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of food products primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail, and institutional demand. They are also involved with education, research and engagement, climate crisis and mobilization, and building reuse.
They are the only North Carolina food hub, out of the nine nonprofit hubs in the state, that, in addition to aggregating produce from small local farmers, wash and chop the produce for easy use by institutional purchasers like schools. As a result, they are the first food hub to become part of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School Program, which sells a variety of locally grown fresh produce to schools.
Food hubs are an important, and unique, component of the food system in North Carolina. In addition to helping feed their communities healthy fresh food, food hubs support local farmers, contribute to a more equitable food system, and enhance overall community development.
“Food hubs play an important role because they disrupt the current mainstream method that we have for transacting food which tends to be very corporate, consolidated, and driven by profit,” says Carla. “Food hubs tend to be mission-driven organizations and have a broader sense of our obligations to the people that we’re working with. We’re really playing a role that hasn’t been played—at least in this country in terms of food distribution.”
The oldest food hubs in North Carolina have been around for about 10 years, but in the last couple of years, there’s been a maturation of efforts and networks.
“Organizations are starting to do more collaborative work, which is good in building an effective system throughout the state in a pretty intentional way,” continued Carla.
This expansion and collaboration were well-timed assets as the state, and the resiliency of the food system, came face-to-face with the impacts of COVID-19.
“Within one year in the pandemic, seven North Carolina food hubs worked with approximately 270 farmers and moved 700,000 pounds of food in addition to working with more than 75 community organizations.”
Carla Norwood, PhD
Within one year during the pandemic, seven North Carolina food hubs worked with approximately 270 farmers and moved 700,000 pounds of food while also working with more than 75 community organizations,” says Carla. “The impact that food hubs are having now is significant, but it’s not nearly as large as it can be.”
Working Landscapes also expanded their services during the height of the pandemic to become a senior meals provider preparing and providing fresh frozen meals utilizing “local products first” through a partnership with the Warren County Senior Center.
Despite the positive impact they are having throughout their community, there are challenges. Food hubs are trying to do something different than the way things are typically done. They’re working in ways that run counter to the mainstream narratives about efficiency, cost, and price.
Simply put, they provide quality food that can often cost more, due in large part to their commitment to paying farmers a fair price and workers a living wage, in addition to the added costs in serving rural areas.
Another challenge Working Landscapes deals with is their focus on value- added processing which is beneficial but also complex and takes additional resources and focus. Cutting, peeling, washing, packaging, and freezing food are examples of the additional value. According to the Rural Health Information Hub, this level of processing increases the value of the food for both the producer and the purchaser.
“There’s a lot of regulation around value-added processing, but we’re very committed to producing a very safe product,” says Carla.
Preparing meals for a greater purpose
While visiting Working Landscapes I was fortunate to meet Cyril Murphy, a chef now leading their Healthy Meals Program that provides fresh frozen meals to local seniors. Chef Cyril lost his job in May 2020, just a few months after he and his wife received their first foster child placement. By the time Thanksgiving arrived that year, they were reliant on boxes of food they had been receiving from the government for five months.
Being a talented chef, Cyril certainly knows his food, so one can only imagine his reaction when opening up one box that included two and half pounds of processed American cheese, a questionable chicken substance, and other food with no redeeming nutritional value. Fast forward a bit, and Cyril was contacted by the Department of Social Services who informed him that his family would be getting a special food delivery for Thanksgiving. He assumed he’d be receiving the same type of food he’d been getting regularly. He was pleasantly surprised.
As Cyril tells it, one of the DSS workers showed up with bags of organic vegetables, an organic turkey, and other healthy foods.
“I literally sat down and cried,” says Cyril. “Because I hadn’t been able to be creative, and I also knew this food was much better for me and my family’s bodies.”
He came to the realization that once he was able to go back to doing what he loved—what he thinks he’s meant to be doing—it needed to have a bigger purpose. Working Landscapes is a perfect fit.
A year later, Cyril was back at the place where he could shop at grocery stores like Whole Foods and buy the food he wants while also understanding that not everyone has that opportunity or privilege.
“I’m now in a position where I can design menus and recipes that fit different people’s life stories,” says Cyril. “I’m from the North, and over the years of working in kitchens, I’ve taken the time to learn from people here in the South on how to cook collards, chicken, and the important ingredients they feel should go into that pot because I’m actually listening.”
Vision for the future
Working Landscapes is already doing important work, but Carla’s vision for the organization is to process food on a full-time basis, provide reliable markets for the farmers they work with and good jobs for the people they employ while creating high quality, convenient, and exceptionally good products. They recently finished up construction on a new food processing facility and cold storage space and processed their first batch of kale which was then served to students in Halifax County Schools. The kale was grown on two farms – Green Leaf Farm, which is a farm and outdoor learning lab run by Halifax County Schools and Davis Family Farms, a growing farm in Warren County run by Larry Davis whose ancestors were once enslaved on the same land. Carla also wants the organization to be a viable business that’s an example of how well our local North Carolina food system can work.
It seems that vision for the future is well on its way to becoming a reality.
Working Landscapes is a current Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation grantee. We are proud to support their continued efforts to increase access to healthy foods, strengthen the local economy, and build a more equitable food system.