Years ago, before the onslaught of chain restaurants and frozen dinners, there was a sense of transparency when it came to food. Mom-and-Pop grocers dotted the streets of small-town America, and families were fed from self-sufficient, family-operated farms or by farms that had a name and face. Since, the waters of the food industry have been muddied. Small-scale farms have been ravaged by the shift toward large, industrialized farms.
Founded in 2006, nonprofit Feast Down East (FDE) has strived to reconnect farmers, restaurateurs and chefs in an effort to accommodate local sustainability and economic growth for smaller farms. This Friday, February 6, FDE will hold its fifth annual Regional Conference at the Burney Center on UNCW’s campus.
FDE found its footing as an effort to combat the immense losses Dr. Leslie Hossfeld, a chair and professor of Sociology at UNCW and FDE co-founder, found to be impacting the region’s agricultural and manufacturing sectors. Marred by job loss and growing poverty rates, FDE aimed to be an economic and community development initiative for Southeastern NC’s agricultural field.
“The NC agriculture sector was hard hit by the decline in tobacco production, a prime crop 20 years ago,” Jane Steigerwald, director of FDE, says. “One of the goals of the program is to help farmers transition to alternative, sustainable crop production.”
As well, small-scale farmers don’t have the means or resources to successfully market and distribute their produce or address concerns with weather or environmental changes. Complying with food and safety regulations and purchasing equipment and supplies also top the list of struggles with which they are faced.
In order to ameliorate these issues, FDE has linked farmers to restaurants and upstarted an online marketplace, wherein people can order directly from local food producers. Their products are gathered and distributed to restaurants, grocers, schools, hospitals, assisted living facilities, and pick-up spots around Wilmington from the train depot in Burgaw.
“That program has been a great success,” Steigerwald says. “We are at the point where food buyers look to us for the freshest local food. Consumers can look for our label at area restaurant and food establishments.”
While aiding the economic growth of regional farmers remains key, health, too, prevails as one of FDE’s main concerns. Their efforts have culled together a Farm-to-School program that concentrates on childhood obesity and shaping the minds of potential future farmers.
“We have successfully built school gardens, instituted garden-based curriculums and brought more local fruits and vegetables into eight elementary schools within New Hanover and Brunswick Counties,” Steigerwald tells. “We plan to grow from here.”
FDE also has partnered with the Wilmington Housing Authority to provide healthier options for low-income communities. Currently, FDE furnishes fresh, local produce at wholesale prices to residents of the Rankin Terrace, Hillcrest and Solomon Towers public-housing communities. They look to add more low-income communities to their list in 2015.
Also on the horizon for 2015 is a venture to open a food hub in Leland. It will come through a partnership with the Brunswick Community College and the Brunswick County Cooperative Extension and will help farmers in the Brunswick and Columbus county area.
The upcoming regional conference will provide a networking platform for those interested in the FDE movement. Jennifer MacDougall, Blue Cross Blueshield of North Carolina Foundation’s Healthy Active Communities Program manager, will open the conference at 8:20 a.m., as the keynote speaker.
“The Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation has been a major supporter of local food systems work in our region,” Steigerwald says. “They see the value in building a healthy local food system as a way to increase access to fresh healthy food and improve overall health. Jennifer has been instrumental in helping FDE expand its programs. Jennifer will provide the inspirational keynote speech to energize the crowd. She will focus on the importance of supporting efforts to promote healthy lifestyles.”
A slew of workshops, ranging from the business of farming to learning how to increase the foot traffic of your farmers’ market, will occur throughout the day. At 1 p.m. there will be a luncheon. The recipients of this year’s Agrarian Stewardship Awards will be announced. Winners are chosen by a committee of farmers, foodies and people involved in the local food systems.
As well, Randy Gore, USDA state director of rural development instrumental force behind the NC Strikeforce Initiative, will speak. The initiative focuses on continued support for small-scale farms.
“Randy Gore will be providing the nuts and bolts of the recently implemented NC Strikeforce Initiative,” Steigerwald says. “Director Gore has always been a great support to our programs over the years and had served as keynote at our first two conferences. It is our honor to welcome him back again.”
The conference will conclude with a regional networking session at 3:45 p.m. Folks can register at www.eventbrite.com. Admission for representatives of govenment or civic agencies is $35, and general admission is $15.
FDE Regional Conference
Burney Center, UNCW Campus
Fri., February 6, 8 a.m.