Within the next few years, the Foothills Food Hub will seek to provide fresh healthier foods for the people of McDowell while helping western North Carolina farmers sell their products and expand their operations.
Although it will take a little more time, progress is happening now towards the establishment of this important food hub in Marion.
“This will help producers, farmers and the food insecure and folks who want to buy food restaurant owners and people who want fresh locally grown foods,” said Project Developer Heather Edwards to The McDowell News. “The hub is going to develop programs that maximize community collaborations.”
This proposed hub will be both a place and a system to support farmers, provide greater access to food and promote healthier living and eating. The hub will have the equipment and space for local farmers to wash, pack, temporarily store and distribute their produce.
In addition, it will have a teaching kitchen and classrooms for healthy cooking and living classes. Organizers are planning to have a commercial kitchen for both community and entrepreneurial use and a community space for special events.
The work to create the Foothills Food Hub started when the N.C. Cooperative Extension for McDowell County received $40,000 in grant money a couple of years ago. The two grants came from the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina (CFWNC) and Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust.
Local residents started coming together to make plans for this important effort. Jim Burgin has been a part of it from the beginning. Although he is best known as the co-owner of Jack Frost Dairy Bar, Burgin is also quite active as a volunteer in the community.
“As part of my interest in seeing the planned Foothills Food Hub come into being and involvement with the St. John’s Food Pantry, for the past two years I have been attending meetings of the McDowell Local Food Advisory Council,” said Burgin to The McDowell News. “This organization is focused on seeing that good, nutritious food is available to our community, especially the poor, as well as provide opportunities for our local farmers to better market their crops. Recently, the number of people involved has increased substantially showing more interest in our community.”
Just the other week, the McDowell Local Food Advisory Council (LFAC) held a meeting at St. John’s Episcopal Church’s Parish Hall to get organized. Almost 30 people attended that meeting.
The discussion at St. John’s was led by Alpo Portelli, who is the executive director of the McDowell LFAC, and Molly Sandfoss, McDowell County’s N.C. Cooperative Extension director. County Commissioner Brenda Vaughn is the chairwoman of the board for McDowell LFAC, which is now designated as a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization.
The planned Foothills Food Hub comes underneath this McDowell LFAC and Edwards (formerly known as Heather Yzquierdo) is the person overseeing the creation of the food hub.
Those who attended the meeting at St. John’s represented a wide range of organizations including the McDowell County Commissioners, the McDowell Health Coalition, the West Marion Community Forum, the Marion East Community Forum, the Marion Tailgate Market, the Martha Simmons Food Pantry at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Grace Community Church, Nebo Crossing as well as area farmers and business owners.
They were asked to sign up for involvement in one of the working groups as well as other areas of responsibility towards making the food hub happen.
Edwards said this food hub will be located within a 9,000-square-foot section at the new home for Nebo Crossing. That large and active church bought the former Spectrum Dyed Yarns plant, located at 263 Barnes Road, and is now renovating that massive building to become the new location for this growing congregation and its community outreach programs. Nebo Crossing is partnering with the McDowell LFAC by providing space within its new location for the Foothills Food Hub.
“Thanks to Nebo Crossing, we will finalize a 15-year lease of 9,000 square feet of the building,” said Edwards on Thursday.
She added the Foothills Food Hub will have four components: a farm hub for area growers and farmers, a pantry hub for local food banks, a teaching kitchen to help people learn how to make healthier meals and a community kitchen for special events. It will be there for restaurant owners who wish to become more of the farm-to-table movement and local churches providing food for the hungry in our community.
The organizers said it will take a few more years for this to become a reality but progress is taking place at this time.
“Some components of the Hub and emergency food assistance can/are happening now,” said Sandfoss. “But construction and equipment are needed to fully see the Hub functioning as we would like.”
The McDowell County Center of the N.C. Cooperative Extension has been involved from the beginning. Sandfoss said her agency oversaw the feasibility study, which laid the ground work for actual project development, and convened an advisory committee to oversee the hiring of Edwards as project developer. The local Cooperative Extension coordinated a lot of the efforts and provided input for the Foothills Food Hub.
“Cooperative Extension can be voices for the farmers and individuals & families with our historic relationship and educational programming in agriculture and health & nutrition issues,” said Sandfoss. “Often times, Extension's role in hub development has been to make sure agriculture and local food system development issues are being addressed.”
In turn, the Foothills Food Hub will help with the Cooperative Extension’s programs efforts by providing the infrastructure.
“We can provide nutrition education, food preparation and food safety for individuals and families through the proposed teaching kitchen,” said Sandfoss. “We can also diversify marketing opportunities and teach and practice food safety for farmers with the proposed farmer component that includes a wash line and storage.”
Through the hub, small business owners will have a place to make their food products.
It won’t be available to just farmers and food-related business owners from McDowell County but to others across the region as well.
“We recognize the food system is beyond county lines,” said Edwards. “We invite regional farmers to use the hub because we want to build a strong collaborative network of producers and consumers in our region.”
The hub will have refrigerators, freezers and other equipment needed for the storage of food. It will be a central place where local pantries and ministries can get food items from MANNA FoodBank in Asheville.
One of those local pantries is the Meals that Heal program at Clinchfield United Methodist Church.
"As the pastor at Clinchfield UMC, housing the Meals That Heal, having this food hub means that it will make it easier for programs such as ours to get the food we need for those who are find getting nourishment challenging," said the Rev. Jim Mathews. "It will also allow us to better serve those we meet who have suddenly find themselves unable to get food, whether through an emergency situation such as fire, or a sudden illness or job loss.
"The hub will allow local farmers and community gardens a place to bring their extra produce, where it will be divided up and sent to pantries throughout the county and may even provide a place of education for those who may not know how to cook to receive the necessary training to do so for their families."
But to make all this happen requires more money. Edwards and the other leaders of this effort are now seeking grants from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, the McDowell Endowment, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Golden Leaf Foundation.
And a series of local fund-raising events at local businesses in Marion are being planned for every month from March through October. Several local farmers have expressed an interest in participating with these fund-raising events, which could be held at downtown eateries or pubs.
Edwards said the Foothills Food Hub will start a social media push this month to help get the word out. “We will also make a video to tell our story,” she added.