ASAP’s Appalachian Farms Feeding Families program has been connecting farmers with people in need of nutritious food since May. The initiative has two goals: to provide fresh, healthy food to people and communities that are experiencing hardships during COVID-19, and to fairly compensate farmers who are facing their own challenges now that many of the restaurants and institutions that purchase their food are closed or operating in limited capacities.
Organizations in rural counties have seen a significant increase in people seeking help during the pandemic, especially food banks, charitable prepared food services, and child and adult care feeding sites. ASAP connects these organizations with local farmers and supplements the cost of food and packaging to ensure that farmers are paid fairly and rural communities have access to fresh food during the pandemic.
Personal relationships between farmers and food relief organizations are at the heart of these collaborations. Most recently, ASAP brought together five farms in McDowell County that are pooling their resources to provide fresh food to their neighbors at St. John’s Food Pantry and Foothills Food Hub. The farmers had enough food to also supply organizations in Caldwell County, about an hour away, but needed a way to transport it during the busiest part of the growing season.
That’s when Joe Sumpter of Red Hill Farm in McDowell County stepped in to help. He splits his days between growing produce with his wife, Blair Sumpter, and working an off-farm job. It keeps him busy from sunup to sundown, but he finds two hours a week to deliver food to organizations in Caldwell County, including Yokefellow of Caldwell County and Creative Beginnings of Lenoir.
“I actually grew up in Lenoir, so it’s kind of a cool way for me to give back to a place where I lived for 23 years,” he says.
Lenoir was where Joe first learned how to grow food in his family’s garden. As an adult, he’s taken those horticulture skills and turned them into a farm business. Joe and Blair grow crops like broccoli, cabbage, and potatoes that they sell to local distributors. Now those foods are also in the kitchens of families who live in Joe’s hometown.
Sharon Harmon, executive director of Yokefellow of Caldwell County, was delighted that someone who grew up in the area would be growing and delivering food to the food pantry.
“He is such a personable young man and he is excited to be able to contribute in such a fashion to his home community. And we’re really excited about placing orders with him and even looking at him as a locally grown produce supplier to our food pantry moving forward,” she says.
This optimism for the future was hard to come by at the beginning of the pandemic.
“At the very beginning it was just a mad dash for food because of unemployment and a lot of other different factors in each individual community. When families and households are put under quarantine, we are the resource for boxes of food and toiletries and personal items. So we have been very diligent in working with our health partners in the community to get these very plentiful boxes home to families who are quarantined,” she says.
Now that the Appalachian Farms Feeding Families program is in full swing, those boxes include fresh produce from local farms. Joe’s purple potatoes were not only a delicious addition, but also a way to share knowledge with families.
“We were excited because we took the opportunity to explain to clients that these potatoes are supposed to be purple when you cut them, when you prepare them. Every time we open our food pantry doors and prepare food and pass it along to a client, to a household, it gives us an opportunity for an educational conversation,” she says.
Joe is also interested in sharing knowledge with people in his hometown. “I was even wanting to mention to Sharon, maybe in the spring, doing a farm day where we’re showing people how to plant.”
He’s thinking ahead to what he’ll grow next spring and hopes to collaborate with the food pantry to create a crop plan that supplies them with produce next year. In the meantime, he’ll keep delivering fresh vegetables from his field and four other farms each week.
“We enjoy seeing him on Friday because he is a true farmer. He gets excited about the agricultural process and what he grows. I believe our partnership will be a long lasting partnership in bringing fresh produce into this pantry,” she says.
Learn more about ASAP’s Appalachian Farms Feeding Families program and how community members can support these efforts at www.asapconnections.org
Aired: August 17, 2020