Health & Fitness

Local Food As Medicine: An Initiative of Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture

By Tamara S. Randolph

What if you lived 30 miles from the nearest grocery store and had limited access to reliable transportation? What if your budget was stretched so thin that a regular supply of fresh, nutritious food was seemingly beyond your grasp?

These are just some of the barriers to food access for thousands of people in our area. In fact, roughly 13 percent*, or nearly one in eight people in the High Country, are food insecure, despite the deep agricultural roots in our region and the abundance of locally produced food.

“In rural areas, transportation is a real challenge,” says Amanda Hege, Director of Dietetic Internship at Appalachian State University. She reflects back to the first years of COVID as a poignant example of the obstacles people sometimes face. “Individuals no longer had access to ride sharing, people were losing jobs, and kids were not getting food at school—food insecurity grew.”

Given the problems of access to quality food for so many people in the High Country, Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture (BRWIA) recently introduced Local Food as Medicine (LocalFAM), a grant-funded food access program that partners with community organizations, such as food pantries, so that they can provide members of their community with fresh, nutritious food supplied by local farmers and producers. BRWIA offers this food at no cost to the participating organizations, who in turn provide it at no cost to the people they serve. To add to this win-win-win scenario, the farmers and producers are paid full retail price for their products.

“Food Access” Organizations: A Closer Look

In the seven-county region served by LocalFAM (Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Watauga, Wilkes, Yancey and Mitchell), a growing list of not-for-profit community groups have taken on the mission to feed the community—organizations like the Ashe Food Pantry, Blowing Rock Cares, Casting Bread, Feeding Avery Families, Hunger & Health Coalition, and Hospitality House of Northwest NC.

Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture, itself a 501(c)3 non-profit, strives to match the needs of these organizations with high quality food grown right here in our mountains and foothills. Just last year, the LocalFAM program distributed over 2,080 boxes of healthy, fresh food to 13 partner organizations in the High Country, equating to nearly 40,000 pounds of nutritious food on our neighbors’ tables.

“We get about 10 percent of our fresh produce from Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture,” says Dick Larson, co-director at Feeding Avery Families. “And it’s some of the freshest we get.” He says that the food arrives to them “having come straight from the ground, maybe two days earlier, packaged and delivered within a couple of days. Some produce we receive from our main food suppliers has been out of the ground for much longer.” He notes that when the produce is fresh, nothing goes to waste. “All of what we receive from BRWIA goes directly to our neighbors.”

Christy at Blowing Rock Cares adds, “I have had clients who are very happy to receive fresh produce. Some of them comment on how this is good for their diet and they just enjoy the freshness…the fresh produce is very much appreciated.”

Why Food Is Medicine

We know that good food is nourishing for both body and soul. When that food is locally sourced, it not only lasts longer, people (and especially children) are more likely to eat it because of that freshness.

“LocalFAM is built on the philosophy that everyone has a right to access healthy food, and that nutritious food can serve as medicine, particularly for treating and preventing many of the chronic illnesses that people experiencing food insecurity are at high risk for,” says Sam Springs, BRWIA’s LocalFAM Coordinator. She explains that the positive effects of high quality food on social and mental health as well as physical health, are well documented. “This idea of using food as a form of preventative care has gained traction within the medical community in recent years, and we are excited to see this kind of holistic thinking continue to gain support.” 

In early March, BRWIA hosted their second annual Local Food as Medicine Summit, presented by the Center for Appalachian Studies at App State. The Summit brought together food access organizations, farmers, educators and government agencies, among others, to discuss food insecurity in the High Country and brainstorm real solutions. Some of the most innovative efforts discussed include food box customization for neighbors with specific health needs; on-site demonstration kitchens, culinary training, and distribution of healthy recipes at food pantries; food preservation workshops; mobile pantries; health screenings; and nutrition education stations. According to Summit speaker Lanae Hood, Policy Associate at the Center for Science in the Public Interest and co-founder of the Grace Kitchen program in Alleghany County, “Ninety-two percent of recipients were interested in learning more about nutrition and healthy food.”

How Local Farmers Benefit

Through their LocalFAM program, BRWIA is not just helping to improve the wellness of neighbors in need, they’re supporting our local farmers. In 2023, 63 farmers and producers sold a portion of their harvest, including vegetables, fruit, meat and eggs, to support the LocalFAM program. With producers being paid full retail price for their products, they were able to earn more than $110,000 in revenue.

Casey Jordaan, producer and owner of Mountainwise Farm, shares, “We have been so lucky and grateful to be in the High Country community and have access to [BRWIA] and grants.” Jordaan, who was also a panel speaker at the Summit, says that she would like to see “more education around the value of locally grown food,” for example how long local food lasts. “The food you’re buying from your local farms lasts two weeks versus a few days.” She also says that careful soil care helps make food even more nutritious. Another High Country farmer shares, “I like how LocalFAM expands food access to people who need it… it’s also helpful that we don’t have to discount prices to help the community.”

Blue Ridge Women In Agriculture and a growing network of food access advocates remain focused on making sure that every neighbor in need has access to a convenient and consistent source of high quality food. Members of the greater High Country community can help by supporting these organizations through donations and volunteering—when we all work together, we can tackle the complex problem of food insecurity in the High Country.

About Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture—Formed in 2003, BRWIA is a women-led organization that builds an equitable, sustainable High Country food system by supporting producers and cultivating community connections that educate, inspire, and increase the demand for local food. BRWIA programs include: High Country Food Hub, King Street Farmers’ Market & Boone’s Winter Farmers’ Market, Double Up Food Bucks, Blue Ridge Collaborative Regional Alliances for Farmer Training (CRAFT), and Local Food as Medicine (LocalFAM).


Photos courtesy of BRWIA

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