Richmond County July 2023


County Seat

Median Income

Population Density Designation

What’s a key ingredient to tackling the challenge of food insecurity? Education, in its many forms.

That was one of the key takeaways from the Extra Miles Tour visit to Richmond County. We began the morning at the Sandhills AGInnovation Center in Ellerbe, NC. The AGInnovation Center work revolves around dual purposes: Creating more opportunities for area farmers to bring their products to markets and helping North Carolinians throughout the Sandhills region have better access to fresh, healthy food.

The organization is the brainchild of our host, Davon Goodwin. Also there to greet us was Paige Clarke from the NC Cooperative Extension, a key partner in the Center’s work.

After returning home from military service in Iraq and Afghanistan (where he sustained a brain injury after his vehicle hit a roadside bomb), Goodwin resumed his botany studies at UNC Pembroke. While there, he became more and more troubled by the irony that one of North Carolina’s significant agricultural regions is also a food desert. Many residents have no access to outlets for buying the fresh fruits, vegetables or meats that are grown in and around their own hometowns. The paradox made Goodwin realize that addressing food insecurity in the region demanded a multipronged, collaborative approach guided by a creative combination of market solutions and philanthropic effort.

His work started as a small CSA (community supported agriculture) that distributed 40 boxes of local produce to participants. Today, with the support of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation and other organizations, he works with community-based organizations to deliver 17,000 boxes annually, from Mecklenburg County all the way to the coast. By his calculation, the Center has shipped more than 60,000 boxes of food to North Carolinians experiencing food insecurity.

Goodwin stressed the importance of carefully “curating” boxes so that recipients will actually use the food included; he wants to ensure that shipments don’t contribute to food waste. An important part of this work is the inclusion of educational materials that explain how to store, prepare and cook the contents of each box.

The scope of the Center’s work goes well beyond CSA boxes, however. Goodwin emphasized the importance of their efforts to promote food security for soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Liberty. The Center collaborates with Atrium Health to provide pop-up farmers markets where employees can shop at the end of their shifts. They formed the NC Food Hub Collaborative, which brings together ~12 partners from across the state to leverage resources and insight in order to grow capacity. Through a grant, the organization was able to provide area senior centers with juicers, fresh produce and recipe books.

The Center’s facility isn’t just a packing center with 1,700 sq. ft of cold storage. It also houses a research and development lab that’s ideal for testing microbials, sanitation practices and other challenges related to the packing and storage of fresh foods. The state-of-the-art lab is used by a diverse array of clients, ranging from Colorado State University to Dole Foods.

Following our visit to the Sandhills AGInnovation Center, the Extra Miles Tour traveled to Rockingham, NC, for a community lunch at Pattan’s Downtown Grille. Representatives from FirstHealth of the Carolinas, Richmond Community College, the NC State Employee’s Credit Union Foundation, Richmond County and others joined Blue Cross NC for informal conversation around an oversized banquet table big enough to nearly fill the main dining hall in this historic downtown building. The topics covered during this hearty conversation were as wide-ranging as the table was long: The county’s dramatic increases in children entering the foster care system; an innovative app that can track children’s mental health; the importance of taking a regional approach to food security; closing gaps in health outcomes and more.

Many different dialogues unfolded around the table as we ate, but they unified around the theme that Goodwin had mentioned earlier in the day: Relationship building and collaboration with community partners is the key to problem-solving.

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U39702, 8/23