Local Co-op Unites People Through Food
'Local Food Co-op Catching On'
To read the first story in the series, click here.
This is the second of a two-part series about Sandhills Farm to Table.
One of Sandhills Farm to Table's guiding principles is "We're all in this together," and the food cooperative's emphasis on community cannot be overstated.
There are canning classes. There are taste testings. There are potluck dinners.
General manager Fenton Wilkinson "really wanted to build community into this thing, and I think that's where he's really brilliant," says Jan Leitschuh, director of communication and farmer relations.
The weekly produce boxes are distributed not at a "pickup site" but at a "gathering site," and the difference is more than semantics, Leitschuh says.
"People are hungry to reconnect, and [Wilkinson] encouraged the gathering sites to be a place you could meet your neighbor, talk about recipes and use the exchange box. Or, if you need to, run in and pick up your box and go, but the opportunity is there for it to be a pleasant experience," she says.
Even the weekly newsletters, compiled by Leitschuh, contribute to the sense of community, co-op members say.
"The newsletters are very educational about the struggles of the farmers and how the weather impacts what we receive in our boxes," says co-op member Sandi Anderson, of Southern Pines. "It's easy to complain about less-than-perfect produce you buy in the grocery store, but when you receive your produce box with very ripe strawberries that need to be eaten in a day, you know that the ripeness is due to the amount of rain we got last week. Because of the sense of ownership you feel, you do not want to waste anything. So you get creative ... like making strawberry jam or peach cobbler."
The newsletters also contain recipes galore. After all, what good is good food if you don't know what to do with it?
"It's all well and good to offer these things, but a lot of people don't know how to cook a lot of it," says Ann McAllister, the gathering site coordinator for the Village Chapel location.
In years of volunteering at an Aberdeen food pantry, she'd noticed that the older women tended to know how to cook a lot of what they received.
"But the younger ones just know how to open a box," she says. "They'll tell you that a lot of things they write off: 'I don't know how to cook that.'"
Although exchange boxes are available at each gathering site (one person might trade his green peppers for another person's sweet corn, for example), members frequently cite the "forced variety" in their diet as one of their favorite aspects of the co-op.
Sometimes boxes contain unfamiliar foods, such as bok choy, a type of cabbage, which was offered earlier this summer. Other times, members find themselves eating produce they probably would have passed over at the grocery store.
"One week I wanted to exchange beets - I had never tried them - and the man at my location encouraged me to keep them and try them, at least on my 1-year-old daughter," says Amanda Talbert, of Pinebluff. "I ended up pureeing the beets and mixing them with mashed potatoes, and she absolutely loved them. It made me really glad I did not trade them out like I wanted to."
The co-op donates produce to local nonprofits ranging from food pantries to Communities in Schools to Friend to Friend, which serves victims of domestic violence. Many members share the contents of their boxes with friends and neighbors.
And information the co-op provides on canning and freezing produce helps minimize waste.
"We get so much food I am able to freeze a ton of it," Talbert says. "That means we can have sweet corn in December, strawberry cobbler in the dead of winter and onion rings whenever I want."
"None of the food is wasted," says McAllister. "It's getting to people, and this is all part of what we wanted it to do."
As word spreads about the co-op, interest is building in all segments of the community.
Sandhills Pediatrics is providing an every-other-week box subscription to its 48 employees.
"A couple of the doctors got really excited about it and internally decided, wouldn't this be a great benefit," says Wilkinson. "This is the kind of thing we would hope other companies could see the benefit of."
And FirstHealth's Happy Kitchens program, a cooking- and nutrition-education program for low-income people, provided co-op produce boxes for its students. When the program ended, many of the students wanted to continue with the box subscriptions, so Sandhills Farm to Table set about qualifying to accept food stamps. (The process continues, but organizers are hopeful it will be completed soon.)
"I absolutely love the program and feel so blessed to play a part in it," says Anderson. "One of my favorite things about Southern Pines is the feeling of community, and SF2T only strengthens this for me. Being able to support local farmers and their businesses >while putting farm-fresh produce on my family's table is a win-win situation."
Jennifer Kirby is a local freelance writer.
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