McDowell County is making progress towards establishing a community food and health hub.

Such a hub would help local farmers with selling their goods while providing food to those in our community who need it the most. It will also promote healthier eating in McDowell.

But the leaders of this effort want the public’s input. Another meeting about the community food and health hub is scheduled for Monday, March 27 at the McDowell County Senior Center in Marion. It will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. This will be a dinner meeting so the organizers are hoping that folks will RSVP by Thursday, March 23. For more information or to RSVP, call 652-8104 or email jane_mcdaniel@ncsu.edu.

“This meeting is a follow-up to several stakeholder meetings to find out community needs for a ‘Hub,’ reads a flier for the event. “We still need your input to develop this Hub that will be of value to our food system.”

Some of the questions and issues to be explored at this meeting will be getting local foods to local markets and having access to a commercial kitchen. “If you want to provide input on a facility that has the potential to provide much needed infrastructure for McDowell County to decrease food insecurity while increasing market opportunities for farmers and food entrepreneurs, please come to this meeting,” reads the flier.

In September, the N.C. Cooperative Extension for McDowell County received $40,000 in grant money that will be used to help start this community food and health hub. The money came from the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina (CFWNC) and Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust.

This proposed hub would be both a place and a system that would support farmers, provide greater access to food and promote healthier living and eating. The food hub would have the equipment and space for local farmers to wash, pack, temporarily store and distribute their produce.

In addition, it could have a teaching kitchen and classrooms for healthy cooking and living classes. There could be a commercial kitchen for both community and entrepreneurial use and a community space for special events, according to organizers.

The $20,000 grant from the CFWNC was awarded in September to the local office of the N.C. Cooperative Extension to determine the feasibility of a community food and health hub in McDowell. This money was matched with another $20,000 grant from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust’s Healthy Places Initiative.

Molly Sandfoss, director of the local Cooperative Extension, said the March 27 meeting will focus on a proposed site and the overall costs of operating the community food and health hub. The proposed site is at the former Spectrum Dyed Yarns plant off Barnes Road. This property, which was recently purchased by Nebo Crossing, would have room for the hub as well.

Since then, a group of local officials, non-profit agencies and faith-based organizations have gotten together to talk about creating the hub. Their most recent meeting was held Monday, Jan. 30 at the McDowell Senior Center.

At that meeting, a draft of the program plan was shared with the participants. This plan is being developed with ideas and feedback from more than 85 community members, including farmers, food pantry leaders, local government officials, school staff and administrators and community leaders from West Marion. There is also input from an advisory committee of 12 local food and healthy living leaders from throughout McDowell.

Project consultants Noah Wilson of Emergent Opportunities and Smithson Mills, who spearheaded the Foothills Pilot Plant, were there to answer questions and discuss the idea.

A core element of the hub would be a warehouse and distribution center for donated food.

“Hub staff would partner with MANNA FoodBank, local farmers, restaurants, grocery stores and others to source donated food, store it safely and effectively, and then distribute it to local food pantries,” reads the program plan. “The products handled by this distribution center would include fresh and frozen foods that are hard for pantries to store due to cost and space issues. Another key part of this program element is buying bulk quantities of dry and canned staple items that are not consistently available as donations, and selling them at-cost to food access organizations, at a price far lower than most are able to get even at discount grocery stores, where many pantries do their shopping.”

This distribution center would need a loading dock, a forklift and pallets, a walk-in cooler and freezer and a packing line to put together pantry boxes and shipments to local food pantries. A box truck with a cooler will also be required.

The Jan. 30 meeting also focused on a “delivery” pantry that would make it easier to deliver food directly to those in need through the use of volunteers. Pre-packed boxes would be on hand and ready for delivery to pantries or to people and families that are identified by social workers or other agencies. This pantry would serve as a staging area for food distribution in the case of natural disasters and other emergencies.

Another important part of the hub is a wash and grading line where produce fresh from the field is cleaned, dried (if needed) and sorted for quality before it is packed and shipped off to market. This would meet the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) standards required by many eateries, institutions and grocery stores. Next to the wash line would be a packing, aggregation and distribution area for farmers so they can keep their products safe and secure.

Another important component in the hub would be a teaching kitchen so that people can learn how to cook food that is healthy and delicious and make it easy for them to use fresh healthier foods. “The teaching kitchen can also be used for engaging local youth, such as the talented students in the high school culinary program, to deepen their learning and get involved by teaching others the skills they’ve learned in school,” reads the program plan.

In addition, there could be a commercial kitchen which would be used for preparing community meals and fresh food to go. For example, 12 Baskets Café in West Asheville serves meals that are made from food donated by restaurants and food-service establishments. The staff takes orders, fills drinks, serve the food and all of it is free.

Caterers could use the commercial kitchen as well, said Sandfoss.

The participants at this meeting also talked about a community event space, a farmer’s cooperative, composting operations, an on-site garden, shared non-profit offices and an affordable healthy local foods café or restaurant.

At the Jan. 30 meeting, participants were asked to consider how this hub would help them and their businesses. They also talked about what community partners would help make sure it is a success.

Jim Burgin, owner of Jack Frost Dairy Bar and member of First Baptist, is one of the people involved in this effort. He also is also active with local ministries and their outreach programs.

“I see it as a win-win situation for the entire county,” he said. “It will help our farmers sell their produce more effectively and our food pantries will have a central location to better serve those in our county who are food insecure.”

The final draft of this plan should be complete by March. After that, the leaders of the food hub will start looking for a location that best fits the needs of the entire county. They will also seek grant money to help make this a reality, according to Burgin.

“It will result in better, fresher food for McDowell County,” he said. “The food pantries we have are spread out. This will bring them together.”