Blake Hart is the executive director of Haywood Christian Ministry, a nonprofit organization providing a food pantry as well as heating and housing assistance. The food pantry serves 800 to 850 families each month, offering fresh, local produce in addition to frozen meat, bread, and shelf-stable pantry goods.
When did Haywood Christian Ministry first begin working with farms to provide local produce?
I came on board after the start of the pandemic, in 2021. When I came, we were halfway through Appalachian Grown Farms Feeding Families [an ASAP program that paid farmers to provide produce to relief agencies in their communities]. We had connections with local farmers before that, but mostly in terms of donated food and our food waste goes to pig farmers. Following the pandemic we’ve had conversations with farmers, with David at ASAP, with MountainWise. We see that buying local produce at the market rate could actually help build a more robust micro food system in Haywood that could play a part in a solution for hunger.
Our conviction is that local food should be available to everybody. Our small farmers have a role to play, but they have to be compensated equitably for the food. This year our goal was to be more intentional about our food work. Food pantries play an important role, but they aren’t the cure to hunger. We want to help insulate our food system by developing small farms in our area.
We currently have agreements with four farms—Mighty Gnome Market Garden, Two Trees Farm (or Sustainabillies), Alta Vista Farm, and Bertollini Agricola. Right now, that’s going 100 percent into the food pantry. We are beginning conversations about the next growing season and getting some of that food into our our fruit and vegetable prescription program through HOP. Also, to help farmers have better access, we want to start offering CSA subscription boxes and selling to the general public as well. We’re working toward being a food hub in our community—hopefully establishing that in the next three to five years. This is the dreaming phase!
Why is offering fresh produce along with pantry or shelf-stable products important?
It’s the healthiest and it’s what people want. We’ve done one surveys with our neighbors, asking what food items do you use the most. Overwhelmingly it was fresh produce and fresh meat. We’ve heard gratitude for the freshness and pristine condition of the local produce coming in. It’s the best of the best, not what was left on a shelf. The reality is that the way our current food system works, food pantries get the leftovers from retail word. We’re grateful, but if that food isn’t used within two days it’s gone bad. We shouldn’t be satisfied with giving away produce at end of its life.
What’s made it possible to keep working with farms?
Grants from the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, Dogwood Health Trust, and Haywood Healthcare Foundation have helped us buy from local farms over the past couple of years. Next year, next budget cycle, we’re working to use more of our general fund. I’ve been overwhelmed with how many farms tell us they would give us all the food we need if that was viable option for them. This helps them grow their business and helps our neighbors. Farmers are our neighbors, too.
What’s on the horizon for you and Haywood Christian Ministry?
The food hub is the biggest part of what we’re looking at. We’re hoping to do a CSA model on a smaller scale as a pilot, and also as a way to take that next step for the farmers we currently have. We’ll have a space expansion in the near future. We are very excited about new rural foods system we’re putting into place through a grant from Golden Leaf Foundation. Hopefully by spring we’ll be installing refrigerated food lockers at five pilot locations in Haywood County. That would allow people to place an order online and pick it up at their convenience. We’ll use local produce for those as well. Our intention is to get local food into as many areas as we can.