From farm to table

By Tara M. Hardy ’12

Third generation farmer Lewis Dozier believes "it is the first responsibility of the farmer to feed the village." Feast DownEast is a growing local effort to connect those farmers with consumers in the region. The owner of Dozier Grains and Produce, located in Brunswick County, says it is "win-win" for Southeastern North Carolina.

UNCW hosts an annual conference that draws about 270 farmers, restaurant owners, school district representatives and retail vendors to discuss strategies to enhance Southeastern North Carolina's local foods market, making it easier for farmers to sell their goods and easier for regional food vendors and consumers to buy fresh ingredients.

Tony McEwen '01, who serves as the economic development officer for U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre, agrees with Dozier. "It's a win for the economy, a win for the environment and a win for the health of the individuals."

Feast DownEast is an initiative developed by the Southeastern North Carolina Food Systems Program (SENCFS) to expand the influence of local farmers in the community by encouraging people to consume more locally produced food products. The program involves connecting farmers to local businesses and consumers to create a more economically significant and sustainable regional food system.

Leslie Hossfeld '83, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at UNCW, and Mac Legerton of the Center for Community Action in Lumberton, co-founded SENCFS in 2006. It started as an effort to address poverty due to massive job losses in the manufacturing industry in Southeastern North Carolina.

They later turned their attention to address other challenged economic sectors, specifically agriculture. Feast DownEast is working to create a fully integrated food system to alleviate poverty and to boost the economy.

"We look at how to help small scale farmers build capacity to participate in the new market," said Hossfeld. "We are creating a demand for local food.

A Local Success

Feast DownEast provides farmers with the support and resources to enhance their business. One of the most effective resources is a commercial-grade kitchen, located in the Burgaw Historic Train Depot, available for rent to farmers and food vendors who use local ingredients in their products. The Burgaw Incubator Kitchen is part of the Feast DownEast processing and distribution center and aids in the program's economic development efforts.

Mike Clay is the owner and founder of Custom Fit Meals, a local business that relies on area farmers and the Burgaw kitchen to produce fresh and healthy prepackaged meals. When he weighed 300 pounds, Clay decided it was time to make a change to live a healthier life. He began eating only fresh and local foods from natural sources. After losing 100 pounds in one year, he knew he was doing something right.

"It changed my life forever," said Clay. "I was inspired to share my success with others."

He founded Custom Fit Meals to serve clients who want to eat healthfully, but lack the time to shop for and prepare their own cuisine. Two years ago, Clay began using the Burgaw Incubator Kitchen for Custom Fit Meals. He now has six chefs on staff to prepare and package meals using only fresh and local ingredients.

"It's not a diet, it's a lifestyle," said Drew Loesch, executive chef at Custom Fit Meals. "We have bacon, too. We prepare things in moderation." Clay's kitchen crew consists of energetic supporters of the organization's mission to improve the health and lives of others.

Clay said using a ready resource like the Burgaw Incubator Kitchen was "a great starting point. It allows us to focus on the product and growing the business."

Clay's business has been extremely successful; he was awarded the Burgaw Chamber of Commerce's Entrepreneur of the Year award and was a finalist for the Coastal Entrepreneur of the Year award from UNCW and the Greater Wilmington Business Journal.

"I've seen a lot of peoples' lives change," said Shane French '09. The former UNCW baseball player now works at the flat-top grill for Custom Fit Meals, preparing everything from turkey sausage patties and frittata fillings to sautéed vegetables.

The Burgaw Incubator Kitchen has received statewide recognition for its success and impact on local business. In November 2011 Governor Beverly Purdue visited Burgaw to present a Small Business Community Award, one of eight given throughout the state.


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UNCW Campus Dining continuously focuses its efforts on making its services more sustainable through recycling, energy conservation, waste reduction, growing ingredients on campus and buying food from local farmers.

Currently, campus dining invests more than 11 percent of its food budget on locally grown foods. Since Wagoner Hall, UNCW's largest dining facility, spends $150,000 to $200,000 a month on food, even a small percentage of that budget can make a big difference to local farms.

UNCW signed on to participate in the 10% Campaign in the spring of 2011. The campaign encourages individuals and businesses to spend 10 percent of their current food budget locally to help build North Carolina's food economy. About 4,500 people and 520 businesses currently participate. Several other N.C. schools have joined the effort, including: the University of North Carolina Greensboro, Duke University, Elon University and the University of North Carolina Asheville.

"We have had a very good response from students so far. They seem to really love it. We just need to continue to get the word out," said Rebecca Hendry, the Campus Dining representative on the sustainability committee at UNCW.

Campus Dining has also started several gardens to contribute to the sustainability effort, including a small hydroponics garden beside Wag-Out, the grab-and-go dining option located next to Wagoner Hall. This indoor, water-based garden is just one example of the many changes being made around campus to "go green" and, in this case, make campus dining more delicious and nutritious.

Campus Dining hosts the Chef's Table at Wagoner Hall every Thursday to showcase the chefs' skills at transforming ingredients donated by local farmers into a feast.

"Using all the different ingredients at the Chef's Table is like Chopped," said Nick Denning '12 in reference to the hit Food Network reality cooking show. "This food would definitely not be on the Chopping Block."

The farmers are able to set up a table nearby to answer questions and provide students with information about the products they provide. The chefs are not the only ones who notice an improvement in the quality of their food.

"It's very flavorful," said Brian Kurtz '12, after tasting the Thai-chicken rice bowl served at a recent Chef's Table. The meal included vegetable sauté with sweet and sour sauce featuring sprouts and fresh lime basil grown on campus. "They made good use of all the ingredients. That was quite delicious!"

Across campus, students can access more local food at the Green Spot. This is the most recent addition to the dining options offered at the Hawk's Nest, located in Fisher University Union. Students can watch as their food is prepared using fresh local ingredients. Some favorite options include breakfast wraps with local turkey and eggs and barbeque sliders with local sweet potato fries. The Green Spot has quickly become one of the most popular choices among students, and competes heavily with Quiznos and Chick-Fil-A.

"The Green Spot is an answer to campus asking for more vegetarian and vegan options," said Matt Rogers, the food service director for Campus Dining. "It's very impressive and shows a lot about the students on campus."

Students can also find local products at the convenient stores located throughout campus. Cottle Organics was the first farm to be featured at Wagoner Hall as well as one of the first to supply the convenience stores on campus with fresh, local produce.

"It's nice to be able to produce good, healthy food that tastes good," said Herbie Cottle, the owner of Cottle Organics and father of two UNCW alumni. "We have been getting a lot of positive feedback from the students."

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Feast DownEast encourages community members to be proactive and contribute to the local economy.

"It's about changing ways as a consumer," said Leslie Hossfeld '83, UNCW associate professor of sociology and Feast DownEast co-founder. "Food is cheaper in season and healthier because it comes straight from the farm. People need to think about eating seasonally and locally and look for restaurants that choose to serve local foods."

Dining In

The easiest way is to buy from local farmers. Farmers' markets are a great way for people to get in contact with local farmers and to buy their products. Many communities have weekly farmers' markets; locally they can be found in downtown Wilmington on North Water Street, at Poplar Grove Plantation, Carolina Beach, Wrightsville Beach, Southport, Leland and, on occasion, even at UNCW.

The Feast Down East Buying Club offers a convenient way for area residents to get their fill of locally grown and produced foods. Shoppers log on at FeastDownEast.org and make their selections by product, farm or growing method. These are then taken to one of three drop off points - THE POD at UNCW, Cameron Art Museum or the Burgaw Historic Train Depot - where shoppers pick up and pay for their purchases.

Also, there are a growing number of grocery stores that sell local food products. In the Wilmington area there are places such as Lovey's Natural Foods & Café, The Fresh Market, Tidal Creek Co-Op and Carolina Farmin'. Even chain grocery stores are stocking more locally
grown foods.

"It's important to buy what's in season and buy what's a good value," said Linda Watson, one of the workshop leaders at the Feast DownEast conference. Watson is an environmental activist and author of Wildly Affordable Organic. Her book helps readers shop and cook in season on a budget. The book includes shopping lists, season charts, recipes and helpful tips. This is just one of the many resources for anyone who wants to start buying local.

Dining Out

Another way to buy local food products is to dine at restaurants that buy from local vendors. Owners understand the importance of providing customers with the freshest ingredients available. They also know that the best place to get these ingredients is right down the street.

"Having a relationship with farmers allows you to grow your business," said Tommy Mills during the Seasonal Menu Planning workshop at Feast DownEast. "You have to work closely with farmers to address your specific need." Mills is the owner of Little Pond Caterers, a local catering business that also hosts restaurant-style dinners at The Front Room.

Thanks to the growing popularity of the buying local trend, many online directories list restaurants that buy local. In the downtown Wilmington area some of these restaurants include Crow Hill, Circa 1922, Marc's on Market, Brasserie Du Soleil, YoSake and Catch.

"We try to buy as much from small organic farms as possible," said Derrick Cook, owner and chef at Crow Hill in downtown Wilmington. "This has a huge impact on the taste of our produce, seafood and meat. By buying our product locally and in season we assure our patrons the best tasting ingredients available."

 

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