How a County Vision Turned Into a Statewide Local Foods Initiative: A Conversation With Harnett County

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Picture this, a brand new kitchen space with cutting edge digital media technology and quality kitchen equipment waiting to be used to prepare the farm fresh ingredients highlighted in the newest local farm short film. That’s the plan for the $130,000 NC Tobacco Trust Fund Grant that will fund The Harnett County Education Kitchen, used primarily to create videos that highlight local foods, grow the local food economy, and promote agriculture and healthy eating. So how did they get here? Let’s take a look back…

Farm to Fork Video

It all started with a collaborative vision between N.C. Cooperative Extension, Harnett County Center staff who wanted to bring agriculture awareness and healthy eating education to youth in their community. In July of 2018, the team held their first of many 4-H Farm to Fork Camps with a goal of teaching youth where their food comes from and healthy ways to prepare their food. After a weeklong camp including local farm tours, they hosted their own version of the TV show “Chopped” using items from the farms visited and similar guidelines to Texas A&M University Extensions “4-H Food Challenge”. An evaluation of the week revealed that 100% of parents reported that as a result of the camp their children are cooking at home, practicing proper food safety, and using proper knife and culinary skills and 91% are utilizing healthy recipes that were provided and eating more fruits and veggies! 

Farm to Fork CookingAs the co-chairs for the Farm to Fork Workgroup (now called Youth Programming), 4-H Agent Jackie Helton and FCS Agent Greg Huneycutt (now in Hoke County) set out to build the capacity of other Extension offices across the state to implement 4-H Farm to Fork Camps. With funding and support from the Local Food Program Team, they created Farm to Fork Camp Kits that counties could borrow which would help alleviate costs of buying all the materials and supplies needed to host the camp. These kits are still being used to this day! Partnering with their former Agriculture Agent Matt Jones (now in Chatham County) and their current Agriculture Agent Selena McKoy, the team started teaching sessions about the camp and how to implement it in other counties. Almost 200 agents and volunteers have been trained by their team statewide since 2019. They even had the chance to share it nationwide at two conferences!

Farm to Fork CompetitionThe next goal was to build a statewide local food cooking competition for 4-H members that would give youth the opportunity to compete for a chance to attend the National 4-H Food Challenge in Dallas, Texas during their state fair. In collaboration with Extension 4-H Associate, Youth Leadership Specialist Shannon McCollum, the team hosted a small competition during the NC State Fair for counties who had competed in regional competitions (and attended county-based Farm to Fork Camps) and had great success. (The “icing on the cake” was the Harnett County team bringing home the blue ribbon!) Thus began the Dinah Gore 4-H Healthy Food Challenge which is now held annually during the “Got to Be NC” Festival at the NC State Fairground. The 2023 challenge brought in over 500 people to see the teams competing. 

So how does all of this get us back into that brand new kitchen space and video equipment? I’m glad you asked. While preparing for the first statewide competition, like many of us, their work came to a halt as the global health pandemic shut down all in-person events. In an effort to continue reaching 4-H members while at home, the Harnett team started making videos and hosting live sessions. With the funding from NC State Extension Director Dr. Bonanno and training from the videography team, Selena McKoy was able to create and share successful videos so the team decided to offer the first Virtual 4-H Farm to Fork Camp! Greg, Jackie, and Selena, planned a 4-session online camp that included farms from mountains to sea. They, along with Harnett County Extension Director Tim Mathews, filmed farms that would highlight local foods across the state so that youth could virtually tour farms and cook along with recipes prepared by the team. Forty-seven 4-H members attended from across the state and the videos are available on the Harnett County Cooperative Extension YouTube Channel. The videos continue to be used and they not only impacted youth and families across NC but became the driving force for a grant to the NC Tobacco Trust Fund Commission (NCTTFC) to remodel the current office kitchen into The Harnett County Educational Kitchen. In addition to the grant received, Harnett County Government is also giving $50,000 toward the project. The team hopes to continue making farm videos using the virtual 4-H Farm to Fork Camp videos as a guide. 

Farm to Fork Video

“If you get a chance to join a NC State Local Food Program Team, whether you are an Ag, FCS, or 4-H Agent, please bring your talents and help grow the program of a work group that you are passionate about. Joining the Farm to Fork Camp Work Group and being a part of the NC State Local Food Program Team has been one of the best experiences of my work career.” – Jackie Helton