Building Capacity for Local Food: A Conversation With County Extension Director Molly Sandfoss

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Molly Sandfoss, McDowell County Extension Director. Photo Credit: Molly Sandfoss

Molly Sandfoss is the County Extension Director for McDowell County in Marion, North Carolina. As a County Director, Molly has administrative responsibilities that include budgeting, making personnel decisions, and providing leadership for the office. In her role, she enjoys “having a hand in shaping the local Extension program and working to meet the needs of the audiences for each program area.” She also specializes in local foods system development, consumer horticulture, and small farms. Her favorite part of this work is building relationships with farmers. 

Molly received the Distinguished Service Award from NCACAA (North Carolina Association of County Agriculture Agents) at the 2020 Conference in August for her work in local food systems development.

Molly acknowledged that McDowell County is an appealing place for new and aspiring farmers. Land is available and the County has a lower tax rate compared to some neighboring counties. “Retired people are moving in wanting to farm,” Molly says, “and younger farmers are attracted to the cheaper land.” Farmers take advantage of their proximity to the larger Asheville market.

That, however, presents opportunities and challenges for McDowell County and for Molly’s Extension programs. Located next door to McDowell County in Buncombe County is the City of Asheville with a high demand for locally produced food. “A lot of farmers sell in Buncombe County, and they can’t be in two places at once… Our local market is thinking of ways that we can let farmers sell their product within our County while they also take advantage of the markets in Buncombe County.” Molly also sees a need for consumer education. “There is a perception that local food costs more. That’s a big challenge that we face,” she explains.

To build capacity for the local food system in McDowell County Molly has led an effort to open Foothills Food Hub. The hub will include a warehouse, cold storage, an area for washing and packing, a teaching kitchen, a commercial kitchen, and other infrastructure to become a central hub for local food. Covid-19 delayed construction, but the hub is already serving its purpose by being the central point to pack and distribute over 1,000 boxes of food each week to community members. Excited to see the hub living up to its’ purpose, Molly is hopeful that construction will resume soon, especially now that we are in a time where “local food has come to the forefront of people’s attention,” as Molly described. 

Extension used the hub to pack a multi-farm CSA box that went to community members impacted by Covid-19. Molly was excited about the community effort that went into this program. “Farmers were excited to participate,” Molly said. Each week a team gathered nine to sixteen products to split into 50 boxes that went out to community members. “Our local Emergency Management Office has a refrigerated truck that they let the Foothills Food Hub use to help store the produce and local organizations helped to identify community members to send the boxes too. “If this is something that the food hub is interested in doing in the future, we provided them with a successful pilot program,” Molly said. She enjoys increased collaboration with community partners during the pandemic, and hopes to see that continue moving forward.

McDowell County Farm to Fork Event, 2019. Photo Credit: Molly Sandfoss

Molly was working to increase capacity for local food even before the pandemic. Molly organized the McDowell County Farm to Table Event that was a well-attended and well-received farm to fork community meal. The event was also a fundraiser to provide local food pantries with funds to buy from local farmers. Molly hopes to continue the event in the future.

When thinking about the future of local foods in North Carolina, Molly thinks that it will continue to grow. “Food is abundant, but we shouldn’t be relying on others for our food supply. Covid-19 brought that to the attention of a lot of people. If something happens to California or Mexico, then we need to rely on our own to feed ourselves. Hopefully this stays in people’s minds. Getting that message to the wider public, about having a secure food system, is important,” she explained.

For advice for other Local Food Coordinators across the state, Molly recommends the Local Food Program website and to not be afraid to reach out to state Specialists, such as Becky Bowen and Hannah Dankbar. “They are there to provide assistance.”

Molly’s Favorite Local Food Dish

Molly’s favorite local food dish is a mid-summer pizza with fresh pesto, roasted vegetables, herbs, and local cheese. Most of the produce comes from her garden or from surrounding farms. Take a look!

One of Molly’s homemade pizzas with local ingredients. Photo Credit: Molly Sandfoss