For most foodies the Triangle is a locavore paradise teeming with family farms, fresh markets and seasonal cuisine. But despite this cornucopia, more than 16 percent of our regional neighbors (276,000 adults and children) are considered “food insecure.” Struggling to make ends meet, they know what it means to be hungry. Many rely on cheap processed food that is high in fat and sodium. And that increases their risk for Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, obesity and other costly ailments related to poor diets.
Farmer Foodshare (a nonprofit that got its start through Abundance NC’s fiscal sponsorship program) is breaking new ground to tackle this paradox of hunger in a land of plenty. The Durham-based nonprofit has established a centralized food hub called the POP (Pennies on the Pound) Market. Its staff and volunteers purchase fresh food wholesale from local farms, then sort and deliver it at affordable :prices to an impressive web of local organizations that feed some 24,000 hungry people annually.
The idea is to strengthen local farms and local communities by providing new outlets for farmers and a convenient source of fresh healthy food for people who need it.
“Our goal is to keep it affordable for the food agencies, while ensuring that the farmers are getting a good price,” said POP Market manager Karla Capacetti.
That’s a tall order, which requires balancing tight schedules and budgets to meet the needs of a complex network of partners. The POP Market taps about 43 small-to-mid-size farms across 17 counties, and 25 local food banks, senior centers, preschools and other agencies feeding Alamance, Chatham, Durham and Orange counties.
The POP Market provides the efficiency, agility and “glue” needed to acquire and transport fresh food expeditiously to a diverse array of customers. Twice a week, Karla e-mails, texts and calls the farmers to find out what they have available. Then she e-mails a list to the food agencies, which have 24 hours to complete their orders. She assembles purchase orders and invoices, then e-mails them to two drivers, and gets them on the road to quickly pick up the bulk food from the farms, transport it to Farmer Foodshare to be sorted for customized orders, and re-load it into the van for direct delivery to the food agencies.
Together, the POP Market and its partner farms and agencies are now providing fresh local food to at least 500 people every week, year-round.
“It’s great to have all of this fresh food going to hungry people,” said Karla.
Since its formation in 2012, the POP Market has spent more than $150,000 with local farmers, and delivered 110,000 pounds of healthy food to local organizations. The program’s reach is growing rapidly. Since the beginning of this year alone it has purchased $83,000 from local farmers and delivered 60,000 pounds of food to local communities.
I recently rode in the Farmer Foodshare van as it traveled across the Triangle to fulfill the message emblazoned on its door panels, “bringing food from local growers to local eaters.”
Jerry Levit, a volunteer and retired farmer and realtor, was delivering farm goods to seven agencies spanning three counties. By 9 am he had picked up produce from Farmer Foodshare and delivered the customized orders to Child Care Services and Chapel Hill Daycare. I caught up with him at Evergreen United Methodist Church in north Chatham, which houses the Take and Eat Food Pantry. The pantry, supported by six local churches, provides groceries for 30-40 families per week.
Pantry manager Michelle Morehouse especially likes supplementing the non-perishables with fresh local food. “My goal was to improve the nutritional content of the food we give out,” she said. “Now we can order healthy produce based on our clients’ preferences.”
The families that come to the pantry also enjoy having fresh produce, even unfamiliar items. “Many clients have never tried some of these vegetables before,” Michelle said. “They discover they like them and they let us know that.”
Jerry went on to deliver more fresh food to four other partner organizations that day, including Sonder Market, a new student-run produce stand at UNC; the Inter-Faith Council Food Pantry in Carrboro; nearby Club Nova, providing mental health support programs; and Child Care Services in Durham.
Jerry likes supporting farmers and helping them expand their reach to needy customers. “We’re committed to strengthening sustainable agriculture and feeding the people,” he said.
The following day I rode with Ryan Cribbins, a part-time POP Market employee who has retired from a long career at RTI International. We drove to the State Farmers’ Market where we picked up fresh produce from three growers: Cox Farms in Goldsboro, Wise Farms in Mt. Olive and Jones Farm in Snow Hill. Then we drove to Lyon Farms in Creedmoor. In just three hours, Ryan had filled the van to capacity with about $1,200 worth of squash, sweet potatoes, strawberries and grapes.
The farmers were pleased. Robbie Cox drove a front loader with more than $500 worth of produce over to the Farmer Foodshare van, including a dozen boxes of cucumbers, five bushels of yellow onions, two bushels of red bell peppers and a big box of broccoli.
“This system works well for us,” said Robbie, who has been farming all of his life. “We can provide quantity and top-of-the-line produce. And every bit of what we can sell helps our bottom line.”
Back at Farmer Foodshare’s warehouse, Ryan unloaded the van, then labeled boxes for next-day delivery to four partner organizations: Veggie Van, a local mobile market; TABLE, feeding school children; Panda Packs, providing week-end food for hungry students at Pittsboro Primary School; and the Interfaith Council Food Pantry in Carrboro.
“I love what we’re doing,” said Ryan. “It’s a really good organization and I like contributing to something worthwhile. I’m also learning a lot about our farm system and the food agencies that serve our communities.”
This story reposted, with permission, from Sustainable Grub.