New cooler space improves access to local foods

New cooler space improves access to local foods

North Carolina is a national leader in agriculture production, but even still small- to medium-sized farms often have a hard time getting into certain markets. One solution to the issue could be something as simple as cooler access.

In February 2018, Reinvestment Partners, a community development nonprofit in Durham, N.C., was awarded $40,000 by the Golden LEAF Foundation Board of Directors to provide a second cooler at Bull City Cool, a multi-tenant storage and handling facility. The purpose of the second cooler was to help grow the number of farmers in surrounding rural and economically distressed communities in the program, increase local food revenue, and provide technical assistance to local food businesses. Reinvestment Partners offers key connections in the local and regional food system for small farms, small businesses, and nonprofits.

“When Golden LEAF funds were awarded, we had 10 tenants within a 3,800-square-foot building, supporting 48 farmers,” said Neal Curran, Director of Food Programs at Reinvestment Partners. “Farmer Foodshare was the main tenant at the time.”

As Farmer Foodshare grew, they eventually became the only tenant in the space. Farmer Foodshare is a food aggregator and distributor helping to connect farmers to new and bigger markets such as school systems, local restaurants, and other businesses.

“This project supports small- to middle-producers break into established markets” said Curran. “The food system is set up for larger producers. A robust local economy has room for the small- and middle-sized farmers.”

The second cooler was needed to help grow Farmer Foodshare’s capacity. Reinvestment Partners thinks of Bull City Cool as an incubator space.

“We went from a hands-on approach to a hands-off approach to Farmer Foodshare ready to outgrow the space,” said Curran. “That’s a good thing in our opinion. We are already thinking about what’s the next tenant that can be here to support and grow in their journey like Farmer Foodshare.”

In October 2012, and prior to the move into Bull City Cool, the Golden LEAF Board awarded $44,999.10 to Farmer Foodshare, Inc. to purchase a van and cooler to expand the work of the POP Food Market. The POP Food Market is a farm to institution transportation, distribution and marketing network for small and medium size farmers including those from Tier 1 and 2 counties near the Triangle. The program helps increase farmers’ access to higher value urban markets by facilitating the sale of produce to nonprofit institutions, from food pantries to hospitals and educational institutions that formerly were not N.C. grown food customers.

By comparison in December 2013, Farmer Foodshare had $102,518 in sales and was working with 22 farmers. When they moved into Bull City Cool, it provided Farmer Foodshare the support they needed to really grow. In 2021, it’s at just under $2 million in sales.

Although Farmer Foodshare was affected by the pandemic, the business pivoted their model to meet the needs of local communities so they could continue to provide sustainable markets for rural farmers.

“The pandemic has affected the business with restaurants and schools,” said Curran. “They adapted by creating healthy food boxes to be delivered to medically vulnerable people. Something we call food as medicine.”

This change helped the business stay afloat in the short-term while also helping the business grow in popularity. Farmer Foodshare along with Reinvestment Partners is now helping farmers grow their markets while keeping costs affordable for local healthy foods.

“There was funding for food for those in need through the CARES Act. There is interest in building out a model to serve healthy foods through the healthcare sector,” said Curran. “Projects don’t always go as you plan. This one totally did.”

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