Foothills Food Hub will expand opportunities for WNC farmers

HUB OF ACTIVITY: Libbi Greene, pictured at the Martha Simmons Food Pantry at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Marion, says the Foothills Food Hub will make life easier for nonprofit organizations that address food insecurity in the area. The hub will also include a commercial kitchen and wash station that will help local farmers grow their businesses. Photo courtesy of Foothills Food Hub

Western North Carolina farmers and food producers will have new opportunities for supporting and growing their businesses when Foothills Food Hub is built in Marion in three years. Fundraising has already begun to upfit and outfit a 9,000-square-foot facility that will allow makers and growers to process, create and store products and take advantage of educational offerings aimed at helping them develop self-sustaining businesses.

Foothills Food Hub, a multiphase project that’s expected to cost a little over $1 million, should be fully up and running by the end of 2021, according to project developer Heather Edwards Yzquierdo. The first phase, anticipated to be complete by Feb. 1, focuses on creating a central storage and staging area for local food-focused nonprofits and agencies. From there, the second phase will address the local agriculture sector, “specifically for storage and connecting to wholesale and online sales options for farmers,” she says.

“It’s about fortifying the local food system,” she notes. “It’s really about strengthening the entire food system for the entire region.”

Though primarily set up to serve farmers and food producers in McDowell, Rutherford and Burke counties, “any regional farmer that wants to be a part of this is absolutely welcome,” Yzquierdo says.

The hub will be at 263 Barnes Road in Marion about 5 miles west of Nebo in a space donated by Nebo Crossing, a church that will also use the space at the former Spectrum Dyed Yarns plant to host services and house its preschool, athletic facilities and community center. Nebo Crossing, formerly Eastside Baptist Church, will partner with the hub in efforts to improve residents’ health and wellness, according to the Foothills Food Hub project summary.

Kitchen space

Plans for the hub include facilities where farmers will be able to clean and package their produce and products and store them for pickup, Yzquierdo says. A commercial kitchen will also provide food entrepreneurs a place to create value-added products such as jam, salsa and ready-to-eat meals.

Karen Speer, who sells honey, soap and eggs from the shop at her Marion property, Sweet Betsy Farm, says the kitchen will be a business boon for local farmers. “From a beekeeping perspective,” she says, “one of the challenges we have is we don’t have a way to create value-added products such as infused honeys without access to a certified kitchen. The food hub would have that and also [have] a place where farmers could deliver things like the hot peppers.”

The commercial kitchen will also be used by Nebo Crossing and could potentially function as a food-preparation center to feed people in the event of a huge snowstorm or natural disaster, Edwards says.

Speer, who has met with hub organizers and other growers, says farmers are also excited about plans for a wash station for cleaning produce. Such efficiencies of scale will allow them “to keep their produce fresh and increase their market area,” she points out.

The hub will additionally function as a community center, offering residents opportunities to participate in health-focused cooking classes. The teaching kitchen will also be available to agencies and nonprofits that want to show clients how to prepare the fresh, local produce they’ve received. “You can give folks produce, but not always are people able to cook it,” Yzquierdo says.

Educational programming could also focus on teaching community members useful skills, such as food preservation. “And if they’re canning, they buy produce in bulk, which means farmers sell more,” she says.

Local food goals

A group of nonprofits, government agencies, faith-based organizations and community leaders developed the food hub project after five years of conceptualizing, organizing and planning. Among the participants was Molly Sandfoss, McDowell County’s N.C. Cooperative Extension director, who led a countywide food-needs assessment that resulted in the creation of the nonprofit McDowell Local Food Advisory Council.

With the objective of connecting, coordinating and strengthening the food system in McDowell County, the council came up with five goals: increase the supply of local food in McDowell County; increase consumer demand for local food in the county; engage community leaders to support growth of McDowell’s local food economy; engage youths in the production, marketing and selling of local foods; and ensure that local food is affordable and accessible to low-income community members

In early 2017, a feasibility study paid for by the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust and the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina helped organizers determine whom the hub would serve, what it would cost and how it could operate.

At a Nov. 26 stakeholders meeting at the McDowell County Senior Center, organizers asked local farmers what they need in terms of selling their products and how the hub could help them. Among organizations participating in the meeting were TRACTOR Food and Farms, a Burnsville nonprofit that aggregates produce from more than 50 small family farms to sell to large grocery stores, and the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, an Asheville-based nonprofit that links farmers to markets and helps local farms thrive.

Promoting food security

Project developers are in the process of raising money for the buildout and to buy the refrigerators, freezers and other equipment the center will need. When phase 1 is complete, the hub will begin serving as a central storage location for fresh and frozen food items from MANNA FoodBank that can be picked up by area food pantries and crisis agencies like St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Picking up MANNA food at the hub “will be so much more convenient,” says Libbi Greene, executive volunteer at the Martha Simmons Food Ministry that St. John’s Episcopal Church operates in Marion. Currently, MANNA FoodBank delivers directly to the pantry, which puts pressure on the volunteers, she says. “The truck has to unload immediately, and we are rushed,” she says. “Once the hub is established, we don’t have to worry about getting [the delivered food] out of the open air.”

Nonprofits networked through the hub will also be able to swap goods that they have too much or too little of, Greene says. If a pantry gets 50 cases of facial tissues, for example, but needs only 20, it can leave the rest at the hub in storage. “The local pantries have limited space for storage, especially refrigerators and freezers,” she says. “Once the hub is established, each pantry will have designated space” in those units.

Though it will be a while before the hub is fully operational, it’s already serving some folks now. The facility is currently storing food provided by MANNA FoodBank for LifeWorks, a program that helps low-income people and families in McDowell, Buncombe and Madison counties improve their lives. It will soon also store MANNA food for the Community Care Paramedic Program, operated by McDowell Emergency Medical Services, and for the McDowell County Re-entry Council, an outreach program by Freedom Life Ministries that helps people coming out of prison transition back into the community.

Foothills Food Hub “will be a cohesive effort to keep everyone together,” Greene says. “It’s going to be a huge bonus for this county.”

For more information about the Foothills Food Hub or to donate to the project, visit foothillsfoodhub.org or contact Heather Edwards Yzquierdo at heather@foothillsfoodhub.org.

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About Paul Clark
Based in Asheville, NC, Paul Clark has been writing for newspapers, magazines and websites for more than 40 years. He is an award-winning journalist, writer and photographer. Some of his photography can be seen at paulgclark.smugmug.com. Google his name to find stories and photos that have appeared in magazines and newspapers throughout the Southeast.

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