How Charlotte's local food movement can catch up

The Charlotte region boasts abundant swaths of farmland and an increasing number of urban residents hungry for locally grown food. So why does so much of the region’s food come from hundreds or thousands of miles away?

More coverage

Mecklenburg County Community Food Assessment 2010

Christy Shi: No fear: on becoming a locavore

Christy Shi: Finding ways to link farmers with city customers

Although many people and organizations are working to help the region better feed itself, several researchers and advocates say more coordination among those efforts is needed if Charlotte is to catch up with regions such as Asheville and the Triangle. They say they’re increasingly focusing on working together to build a regional system to better connect producers with consumers, and they say such a system would benefit the local people, economy and environment.

Examples of regional needs they cite:

  • More packing houses to bundle local crops together.
  • More commercial kitchens to make foods such as cheese and beef jerky.
  • More strategies to determine how some products could be grown and sold here in larger quantities.

 

The region’s array of farmers markets and community-supported agriculture operations, in which subscribers buy regular shares of whatever local farmers produce, are good starts, but the region needs more than that if it’s to make eating local food the norm rather than a novelty, said Christy Shi, executive director of the 7th Street Public Market. The market, a nonprofit facility which opened in December, sells food from several of the region’s farms, and houses local food entrepreneurs.

In order to build such a system, Shi said, the region must think carefully about what’s needed where. For example: Could an empty building near a highway be used to freeze or can crops from a neighboring county with lots of farms?

For the most part, she said, that kind of discussion is not yet happening. 

“Right now, everyone’s looking at different parts of the elephant,” said Shi, who is stepping down from her role at the market at the end of March and becoming a local food systems consultant.

As a result, the Charlotte region’s local food system is not developing as quickly or efficiently as it could, she said.

Shi and others hope that’s changing. The process could accelerate thanks to a $4.9 million federal grant the Centralina Council of Governments won in November. The grant, to fund a regional plan for sustainable development, includes about $250,000 to study the region’s food system and create a regional food policy council and local food action plan for the region.

North Carolina is a national leader in building local food systems, but the Charlotte region’s system isn’t as well established as those in places such as the Asheville or Triangle areas, which have longer histories of work on the issue and more farms near their respective cores, said experts.

Shi has examined 12 counties surrounding and including Charlotte and found they produce only $18 million of the $521 million worth of fruits and vegetables people in those counties consume annually.

The region has the capacity to catch up, she and others said.

A growing number of local residents want more locally produced food, and even though the region has lost many farms nearest the center city, Charlotte’s neighbors have largely retained their rural heritage.

Mecklenburg County lost more than 6,300 acres of farmland – about a quarter of its total – from 2002 to 2007, according to the federal Census of Agriculture. Most of the region’s other counties lost much smaller percentages or even gained farmland during the same period.

Many local farmers now grow commodities such as soybeans and cotton, but they might grow more fruits and vegetables for local consumption if the region had a better system to support that activity and minimize risk, Shi said.

Although Charlotte has fewer farms close to its core than some of the state’s local food hotbeds, it could compensate by creating a stronger regional distribution network, said Sarah Johnson, who is examining Charlotte’s food system as part of a National Science Foundation-funded study that also includes three other N.C. areas and is based at UNC Chapel Hill. That way, consumers could eat more local food without each farmer having to truck wares from market to market in search of buyers.

“More and more people are aware of the fact we need to start looking at regional system development if we want a solid local food system here,” Johnson said.

There are signs of progress, said Marilyn Marks, chairwoman of the nonprofit Charlotte-Mecklenburg Food Policy Council. She is working with Johnson on UNC’s study of the region’s food system.  Farmers increasingly are partnering with restaurateurs, for example, and two local organizations, Friendship Trays and Slow Food Charlotte, are partnering to deliver food from local gardens to meals-on-wheels recipients.

On a regional scale, however, Charlotte’s local food system remains “embryonic” compared to its potential, said Marks, who retired last year after 13 years coordinating gleaning – salvaging leftover fresh produce to distribute to the hungry – for the Society of St. Andrew.

 “If you’re going to feed all of Charlotte, you’ve got to think a little bit bigger,” Marks said.

Cabarrus County is at the vanguard of the region’s effort to think that way, several observers said.

The county formed its own food policy council, runs an incubator farm to help new farmers learn the business and is working to make one of its primary agricultural products, cattle, more available for local consumption.

Cabarrus and other local counties are major cattle producers, but without a nearby slaughterhouse, the animals often are sent elsewhere to be processed. That practice should diminish in June, when a new facility the county is building in partnership with Cruse Meat Processing is expected to begin slaughtering animals for hundreds of farmers throughout a 10-county area.

Roland McReynolds, executive director of the Pittsboro-based Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, which has several hundred members in the Charlotte region, said the effort that led to the Cabarrus facility is “an example of the kind of additional inquiry that needs to be made.”

On the state level, North Carolina could boost local food systems by giving a tax break to small fruit and vegetable farms, which grow much of the state’s locally consumed food. To be eligible for “present-use valuation,” such farms today must have five acres or more in crop production, McReynolds said.

Most of those interviewed are optimistic the Charlotte region will continue to localize its food system.

There are now successful models for solving many food-related issues, from how to get more local crops in schools to how to recruit young farmers to replace their increasingly aging predecessors, but those models need to be scaled up, said Nancy Creamer, who has worked on such issues for 25 years and is now director of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems at N.C. State University.

Some examples of local food’s growing momentum:

  • In 2009, state lawmakers established a 24-member North Carolina Sustainable Local Food Advisory Council, whose members include Creamer, McReynolds, China Grove farmer Randall Patterson, Concord farmer Tommy Porter Jr. and former Cabarrus County manager John Day.
  • In 2010, Creamer’s center published “From Farm to Fork: A Guide to Building North Carolina’s Sustainable Local Food Economy.” The 100-page document, which resulted from a yearlong initiative involving more than 1,000 people, identified 11 “game-changer ideas,” many of which are being acted upon, Creamer said.
  • The same year, Charlotte-based Compass Group North America, a food service management company with 2010 revenues of $11 billion and which supports several local food-related initiatives, pledged to source 10 percent of the produce it serves to its N.C. accounts from farmers in the state.
  • In February, the Mecklenburg Cooperative Extension Service and state agriculture officials began a monthly Friends of Agriculture breakfast meeting series to connect businesses, institutions and individuals supporting the region’s local food economy.
  • People in Anson, Stanly and Montgomery counties are forming a food policy council, Shi said.
  • Cooperative Extension agents and South Piedmont Community College officials plan to launch a CSA-like operation to distribute food from farms in Anson, Union, Stanly, Montgomery and Richmond counties by next spring, Anson County Cooperative Extension horticulture agent Aimee Rankin said.

 

Slow Food Charlotte leader Thom Duncan, whose organization advocates for what it calls “good, clean and fair” food, said Charlotte will build a more localized food system only as quickly as residents will support it.

“We’re here to communicate and facilitate change,” Duncan said. “How much the community buys into it is up to the community.”

Debbie Hamrick, director of specialty crops for the N.C. Farm Bureau Federation, a nonprofit group that promotes farm and rural issues, echoed Duncan’s comments. It can be difficult for farmers to make a living selling fruits and vegetables directly to consumers, she said, so Charlotteans who want a more localized food system must express that desire with their dollars.

“If city people want local foods, buy them all the time,” Hamrick said.