There are few real needs for humans to survive. We must have oxygen, water, food and, to some extent, shelter. Our modern world has created many variations of solutions to meet these needs. Though many people in the world today do in fact still live in tents, the majority of encore’s readership does not. Or as Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett put in their magnificent novel “Good Omens”: “Almost the entire drive of human history has been an attempt to get as far away from nature as possible.” Some would argue that we have succeeded in that aim—to the point that we have become dreadfully disconnected from the reality of our food source.
The locavore or local food movement seeks to re-connect with where our food comes from: the farm and the farmer. The Live Local column tries to look at the impact our spending choices make on our lives. Without question, food is one of the most important elements for survival and by extension one of our most important purchases. The argument for strong, sustainable local food systems as necessary for food security has been borne out repeatedly in the last few years, the mid-west egg recall leaping to mind as an obvious example.
While “food security” sounds like an alarmist term to many, in any conflict the food supply is seen as key to victory: Those who control it have the upper hand. Hence, siege warfare and scorched earth policy. Depending upon importation for one of our most basic necessities is a fool’s paradise at best, and in a world concerned with oil prices, it is becoming increasingly more expensive. Why not take that money and invest it here, with our farmers, and get the best, most nutritious meal instead?
Our area has made great strides with embracing this message. The increase in farmers’ markets in our area, the growth of the Southport market, the launching of Down East Connect and the projects of Southeast North Carolina Food Systems Program, known to many as Feast Down East. On Friday, February 3rd, Feast Down East will hold its second annual regional conference in UNCW’s Burney Center. This year’s theme is “Bridging the Gap—Bringing Local Farmers to Market.” Face it—that’s the key: getting the food into the hands of our area’s consumers.
Last year’s conference was a success, according to Jane Steigerwald, program director for marketing and institutional buying. As an example she points to Angela Cannon and Bill Brown of Angela’s Pepper-Pickled Foods.
“In the past they were driving to Clinton to get cucumbers, which was four hours round-trip,” Steigerwald relates. Any business owner immediately starts tallying up the costs of four hours not cultivating product, including gas expenses and if necessary having to pay someone for their time to make the drive. It’s really not a great option for the bottom line.
“But at the conference last year, [Angela] made a great connection with My Sister’s Organic Farm,” Steigerwald continues. Edna Carol Jackson and Joyce Bowman are now providing Angela’s Pepper-Pickled Foods with cucumbers from Pender County. The cucumbers are delivered to the SENC Foods Farmer Co-op Distribution Center in Burgaw. Cannon and Brown’s drive time and fossil-fuel expenditure have been cut to less than half, and a farmer in Pender County has forged a strong economically viable relationship with a food company in New Hanover County. It really is good news all around.
Last year’s conference had 150 attendees, 83 of whom were farmers and 15 were buyers. “We are hoping to really increase the attendance of buyers this year,” Steigerwald says. She pointed to the importance of buyers in the restaurants, schools, hospitals, assisted-care facilities to support this local-food movement.
“We need to increase the demand for local food to really drive this movement forward,” she points out. Next, of course, is the importance of helping farmers build capacity to meet that demand. The hockey-stick curve is what every entrepreneur looks for, but having the infrastructure in place is a delicate balance and an expensive one. Not only can we as a community create demand for local food—and thereby invest with our local farmers—we could start discussing larger steps we need to take to develop infrastructure and local financing options to ensure our food security.
One of the additions to this year’s conference is the focus on fishermen and sustainable fisheries as part of the programming. “It is really important that we reach out to them,” Steigerwald explains. She pointed out the majority of fresh catch is exported out of the area. It seems so obvious that there would be a market for fresh catch here. We have said before in past Live Local columns that the CSA model applied to seafood (i.e. pay for the season upfront and receive weekly seafood at a distribution point) would be eagerly supported by our household; I know many friends’ who would back this option, too.
Readers who are looking to connect with others who are trying to build a sustainable local food system makes the conference a wonderful opportunity. Attendance this year is limited to 250 participants; priority will, of course, go to farmers, fishermen and institutional buyers, The conference takes place February 3rd, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. To register visit www.FeastDownEast.org.