By Cassidy Hobbs Hall
Area Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences
Johnston County Cooperative Extension
A couple of weeks ago, many consumers feared the worst concerning COVID-19. There was a heightened sense of anxiety around the potential of grocery stores closing down. Based on observations from Italy, other U.S. states, and fellow N.C. counties, I think consumers are [hopefully] regressing in fears of grocery stores being shut down. This crisis, however, has raised more interest in where consumers can purchase food outside of a grocery store.
One of the many wonderful offerings of Johnston County is its local agriculture economy. We have local availability of a variety of foods from produce to meats. This is a great opportunity when considering the food industry’s response and ability to feed our communities in times of crisis. Food system infrastructure has kept up with demands to ensure our stores aren’t empty. You may have noticed that trivial considerations of food have not mattered during this time- as long as there is food to feed our families. You visit the store and you’ll see that whether food is organic or conventional it does not matter- all food is sought after to nourish our families. Let’s take a moment, however, to consider what would happen if those stores did close. Where would you get your food?
Unfortunately, many kids, as well as adults, believe that food comes from a grocery store. Where do you think grocery stores get their food to sell? They are not growing it in warehouses or creating it in factories. It’s grown on all scales of farming- large and small, local and shipped. Our Johnston County farmers are part of that food system, whether they are growing crops for animal feed or growing fresh fruits and vegetables for your family. If grocery stores did close, would you grow your own food? Many of us do not have the time or the knowledge to successfully grow enough of our own food to feed our families and neighbors. I work in a building full of expertise and I can not tell you when and how to plant my favorite vegetables. Thankfully, some of our neighbors have both the knowledge and skillset to do just that. Those neighbors are farmers dispersed throughout our county. Did you know that Johnston County is home to over 1,000 different farms?
I think it is a great idea, regardless of your zip code, to identify where you can buy foods locally. In partnership with the Johnston County Visitors Bureau, an initiative called JoCo Grows Agriculture has been launched to educate consumers about Johnston County’s agricultural economy. Take the time to visit www.jocogrows.org to learn more about farms and local food sources in your area. I’d also like to challenge consumers to visit these farms and ask questions. If you frequently read my articles, you know I’m a proponent of examining sources of information to gather facts. Rather than asking Google or Alexa about your food, ask your local farmer. Farmers love to tell their story, why they do or do not use certain growing practices, and especially during this public health crisis, a local farmer can tell you what food safety systems they have in place.
When you buy food locally, you help support those in your community. You may think you are only supporting one family farm, but that farmer is likely using local inputs from a neighboring supply store who employs local people. The farmer likely borrows money from a local business that also employs local people. That business may even contribute money to your child’s school or fundraising event. According to local food system research, for every dollar spent on local products, between $0.32 and $0.90 worth of additional local economic activity takes place.
In addition to supporting the local economy and neighbors, there is also a benefit in eating locally. I can’t say that food grown locally is automatically healthier, but you are likely to consume more nutrients from a strawberry grown in Johnston County than a strawberry grown in California. The moment produce is harvested, its nutrient content begins to degenerate. The less time that food spends in shipping and sitting on the shelf, the higher the quality of the food and its available nutrients. You may find that locally grown strawberries taste much sweeter. When grown farther away, strawberries are harvested before they are fully ripe to withstand the time of transportation to your local store. Eating locally means eating seasonally, which helps your body receive a variety of vitamins and nutrients throughout the year. Did you know that each color of foods indicates a different health benefit and nutrients? That’s why we encourage eating a colorful plate.
Eating a colorful plate is easy to do here in Johnston County. Over the next two weeks, locally grown strawberries will be available and fresh cabbage is getting ready for harvest. Johnston County grows tons of sweet potatoes that are available year round and we also have local meat and dairy producers. Throughout the course of the year, you will likely begin to see crops such as corn, wheat, and soybeans growing. Although these crops are not sold directly to consumers, they are grown for livestock feed, next year’s seed, and various other uses to keep our food system going and ensure we have safe, affordable food in times of crisis.
Agriculture doesn’t just feed people in rural areas or feed communities in times of crisis. I challenge you to seek out local food outlets in your area of the county and visit www.jocogrows.org to see what else is available in Johnston County. When you are shopping at the grocery store and have to make a decision between two brands of produce, check to see where the produce was grown and make your choice based on the item with the most local ties. If you are interested in growing your own food and preserving it, but you are not sure where to start, give Johnston County Cooperative Extension a call or visit our website at https://johnston.ces.ncsu.edu/