Cross-Programming for Food System Change: A Conversation With Hannah Bundy and Tracy Davis

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Hannah Bundy and Tracy Davis

Hannah Bundy and Tracy Davis

Hannah Bundy and Tracy Davis, Rutherford County Horticulture Agent and Family & Consumer Sciences Agent, respectively, have joined forces in recent years to work with their local farmers and growers on various projects stemming from their Rutherford County Food Council to increase the availability of local foods to those in need. “Thanks to the many hours of volunteer work, passionate community members, and generous donors…over 700 pounds of locally raised beef have been donated and nearly $10,000 worth of locally grown fresh vegetables have been planted, harvested, packed, and delivered to food pantries for distribution to Rutherford County families” through their Farm to Pantry project. 

Doing work that you love makes it so much more impactful for the community and allows you to put your passion into successful projects and programs. Hannah and Tracy have found that these local food projects align with their favorite parts of the job. For Hannah, that’s community building and collaborations with key partners that work to improve the community and engage with their food system. Tracy loves providing opportunities for consumers to engage in positive conversations about food, to build culinary skills, and to adopt healthier lifestyles as well as facilitating community-led initiatives that create healthy environments for county residents wherever they live, work, and play.

Hannah and Tracy’s Local Foods Landscape

Rutherford County sits in the foothills of Western North Carolina and is the second largest county by number of acres. The local food landscape is quite wide-spread with many small-scale farmers, market gardeners, and even some new residents coming to the county to homestead and start small-scale operations due to the ideal climate, landscape, and availability of land. One of the challenges that local growers face in the area that directs Hannah’s work is access to market channels and places to sell their products locally. 

With a high percentage of the population falling below the poverty line, navigating access to fresh, local produce is a challenge for many residents. “Lack of safe, affordable housing and reliable transportation adds another layer of difficulty for families trying to put nutritious food on the table,” says Tracy. 

These challenges have impacted the projects that the Rutherford County Food Council has worked to address. Hannah explained that by engaging food system partners in educational efforts around food system literacy as well as providing supportive programs that help fill gaps and transform the systems and landscape overtime, their hope is to lead to more equitable and sustainable access for all residents. 

Hannah and Tracy’s Primary Projects & Programs

Hannah and Tracy facilitate the Rutherford County Food Council and it’s a relatively unique group of agency representatives that work in food and health fields. The group works to share, collaborate, and plan projects based on community needs from public input. These projects “focus on creating greater access to nutritious food, empowering families to make healthier choices, expanding nutrition education, and reducing food insecurity,” (Healthy Food Donations, Tracy Davis).

A major project started through the council is their Farm to Pantry project, which focuses on the donation of fresh produce and meats from local farmers and growers in the area. Deer Valley Farms, a local farm owned by Bob and Dale Young, approached Tracy and Hannah wanting to donate all of their produce from their crops for the year. Tracy worked to create a Food Pantry Contact List to ensure that donations could make it to pantries and clients at peak freshness. Hannah, Tracy, Bob, and countless volunteers helped to make this project a success. They worked to harvest, wash, bag, and deliver the donations, keeping costs down for this project. A Farm to Pantry donation fund was also set up by the local farmers market as a way to honor Bob, his late wife, Dale, and all of the work they were engaged in. These donations contributed financially to Deer Valley’s donation project, as well as produce and beef purchases from other farmers, supporting families in Rutherford County impacted by food insecurity. The Farm to Pantry project was also generously supported through financial contributions from the ASAP Appalachian Farms Feeding Families program fund, and Community Food Strategies to purchase supplies such as wax boxes and cool storage options, which ensured food safety for all of the donations. 

The Healthy Food Donation Project, in a similar effort of providing food to those in need, promotes donations of nutritious shelf-stable foods. The goal of the project is to promote healthier options for families who depend on food pantries and/or soup kitchens to meet their nutritional needs as well as addressing cooking challenges due to temporary housing situations and limited kitchen equipment. The Healthy Food Donation List is a reference list created for groups or individuals to use when deciding what items are best for donations.

Tracy is also partnering with food pantries and faith ministries to reach families living in transitional housing with limited cooking equipment through a new project called the “Kitchen Kit”. Individuals and families in sheltered or non-sheltered living situations receive a “kitchen in a box” filled with simple equipment to prepare simple recipes. A new statewide workgroup is piloting a recipe card deck and developing a toolkit for agents to help address food insecurity within this population. 

Other projects developed by the council include community garden grants and community garden leadership education, through partnerships with NC A&T University and N.C. Cooperative Extension, McDowell County Center. They are planning upcoming community listening sessions aiming to receive guidance that will help plan and prioritize future projects. The council has worked with other key partners to offer supplies for groups starting community or school gardens as well as for first-time home gardeners who want to grow their own food. “One of the most beneficial ways we can help people who face food insecurity is to provide the knowledge and skills to grow food for themselves,” (Healthy Food Donations, Tracy Davis).

Hannah also partners with the Polk County Agricultural Economic Development office to host the NC Foothills Farm Tour – an educational program with a goal of bridging the gap between consumers and producers and getting local farmers connected with a larger customer base who values their practices and products. 

Newest to their list of projects includes a Donation Station at their local market, which seeks to improve access to fresh, locally-grown food while supporting the farmers who grow it. The program is designed to combat local food insecurity while raising awareness that a healthy food system must include every member of the community. Donation Stations use a simple farmers market-based approach where volunteers collect food and monetary donations from farmers market shoppers, buy directly from farmers at that market, and donate the resulting food to a local hunger relief agency. 

Hannah said her main advice for people interested in local food projects “would be to get comfortable getting outside of the box with how you operate and solve community challenges around local foods, and to make sure that you’re including the people affected by the challenges in your community in those conversations as well.”

Hannah and Tracy’s Final Thoughts

Hannah and Tracy both stressed the importance of making changes to the system as a whole in regards to their local food outlook. You can see this in so many of the projects they are bringing to their county and community. Projects have started simple and they continue to work to grow them into something sustainable and long-term while also looking at the bigger picture of where and how that project fits into their food system. 

When asked about the future of local foods Hannah shared an exciting outlook for the western part of the state: “I think local food systems are the way that we’ll be able to sustain resilient community-centric and localized food systems, and keep our communities fed in the coming decades. Since our geography makes small farms much more realistic than larger-acreage operations, that feels like a long term reality in the foothills and mountains of NC. I’m excited by the resurgence and interest in small-scale community focused food systems and hope that they stay a major part of our conversations about how to sustain through the challenges of supply chain breakdowns and our changing climate, especially with increased likelihood of major weather events that have a huge impact on farms and food production.”

Hannah and Tracy’s Favorite Place to Buy Local and Favorite Recipes Using Local Food

Hannah said she is a fan of her farmer’s market and she participates in a seasonal vegetable CSA in the summer and fall and is looking forward to that starting soon! Thinking about all of the yummy summer crops, she said her mind goes to heirloom tomato and basil toast. “I get the most delicious bread from my local bakery and then pile it high with fresh tomatoes and some basil from my weekly CSA box. I generally have some variation of this, topped with a farm fresh egg, most mornings in the heat of summer.” 

For Tracy, some of her favorite recipes using fresh local produce are from NC State Extension’s Med Instead of Meds curriculum. The Summer Green Bean Salad is the perfect trio of beans, corn, and tomatoes. “Of course, roasted vegetables are always on my menu because I can use any combination of in-season veggies any time of year.”