Edible Piedmont — Spring 2013
Change Language:
The Food Revolution: People Who Make A Difference
By Debbie Moose

Nancy Creamer is a lot like a Broadway stage manager. She prefers to operate away from the bright lights, and people on the other side of the curtain might have little idea about what she does to help make a great production.

She also has a gift for herding the cats – bringing together people with diverse points of view, ideas, and egos to further the cause of sustainable agriculture and its benefits for the public and North Carolina.

Creamer's goal is to bring as many characters as possible onto the local food stage: chefs, health insurance companies, unemployed teens, supermarkets, institutions, and politicians.

Creamer, has been director of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems since 2000. CEFS started in 1994 as a collaborative project of N.C. State University in Raleigh, North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, and the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Originally, the center was based only at a research farm in Goldsboro and focused on environmentally sustainable agriculture research, extension and teaching. The farm has since become one of the nation's largest centers for the study of sustainable farming practices, and CEFS has expanded to work with state and federal agencies, farmers, organizations, businesses and others to, among other things, educate young farmers, develop economic opportunities in underserved areas and connect communities with local food systems.

In January 2013, The USDA recognized CEFS with a Secretary's Honor Award, the highest award the agency bestows for contributions to agriculture, consumers, rural America, and the environment.

Triangle food fans know CEFS for organizing the sellout Farm to Fork dinners each spring, where prominent chefs prepare locally grown food for several hundred ticketed guests. This year's event will be held June 9. The money raised goes for CEFS projects, many you may have heard about:

• The 10 Percent Campaign, which encourages consumers, from individuals to corporations, to spend at least 10 percent of their food dollars on North Carolina products.

• Farmhand Foods of Durham, a purveyor of locally produced meat which started as part of a CEFS incubator program.

• The Wayne Food Initiative in Wayne County, which is working to make healthy food available in low-income areas. In Goldsboro, the project includes the Produce Ped'lers, teens who deliver fruits and vegetables from a farmers' market by bicycle and also offer nutritional information.

CEFS has just received the first year of funding of a five-year, $3.9 million grant to build and evaluate supply chains for local farmers and fishermen to supply large scale markets in North Carolina. The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, awarded the grant. The CEFS project seeks to create a statewide model for linking local farmers and food producers with large markets and institutional buyers. Lowes Foods, US Foods, Foster-Caviness and Ft. Bragg are participating, looking for ways to bring local food to military bases and other large markets.

The project involves research, outreach and academic components and includes a number of partners within North Carolina. One of those partners is "Got to Be NC Agriculture", the statewide marketing program of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services that has worked since 2005 to increase markets by building consumer recognition of local foods.

The Farm to Fork dinners are part of a larger initiative that Creamer says is one of CEFS' greatest accomplishments so far. In 2010, "Farm to Fork: A Guide to Building North Carolina's Sustainable Local Food Economy," the product of years of research and collaboration, was released. The goal: Make a plan to benefit consumers, farmers and employers through sustainably produced local food.

Politicians signed on. Former Governor Beverly Perdue told 400 participants at CEFS' annual Farm to Fork Summit in 2009, "You are beginning to change the tide, directing the links between local agriculture, jobs, and the economy."

More than 1,000 North Carolinians from agriculture, community outreach, education, faith groups, finance, public policy, and government worked on the guide.

The guide identifies nine challenges for North Carolina and recommends state and local actions, starting with what it calls 11 "game changers" that can be accomplished within two years. In all, 10 of the 11 "game changers" are either completed or in some form of implementation. You can read the guide at the CEFS website, www.cefs.ncsu.edu.

The key, she says, it to help all parties see how using local food will benefit them.

"There is so much common ground," she says. "I'm in meetings all the time and there's not a lot of battling. Things can come together if we stay focused on what we want to do together."

A major issue with getting local food to large institutions or supermarkets is supply, she says. The current system is not geared for small sustainable farmers, but for large food producers. To fulfill the potential of local food, that needs to change. And Creamer is undaunted at the idea of helping to turn such a giant ocean liner of a system because she has already made waves.

Lowes Foods is working with CEFS on developing mechanisms for local food to reach supermarkets. The grocery chain committed to the 10 Percent Campaign. Other supermarkets participating include Whole Foods and Piggly Wiggly.

Creamer helps the diverse groups she works with see the value of local food by pinpointing how it relates to each group's situation and needs, while being persistent and focused. In the process, she takes the local food issue beyond the warm and fuzzy.

"She's so good at matching people and assembling great teams of people. She would never take credit, but she's an awesome leader," says Debbie Roos, agriculture agent at the Chatham County Center of North Carolina Cooperative Extension and a longtime friend of Creamer's. "She's not afraid to express an opinion, but gets along with everyone. She's not seen as a crazy radical. That's a real talent. She's amazing at bringing people into this local food thing that were not considered partners."

Ask Creamer how she does it all, and you'll get a modest answer.

"I come at it from different angles. The health aspects, job creation, market demand. There is market demand, but no way for (local food) to get there," Creamer says. "The last five years have been different from the last 20 in that more people are coming to the table, such as those in health professions and economic development. Customer demand has sped up those changes.

"The big retailers we talk to now don't think this is a fad."

Her own varied background may help her talk with different groups of people. She grew up in a small town in Southern California on a commercial egg farm, but initially wanted nothing to do with agriculture.

She graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara with a psychology degree and spent time in India, where she began thinking about food issues. She returned to get a PhD from Ohio State University in horticulture, where she studied organic vegetable production. Creamer arrived at NCSU as a research and extension specialist in horticulture in 1995. She has continued to teach at NCSU after becoming CEFS director, and holds a named professorship established by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation as a distinguished professor of sustainable agriculture and community-based food systems.

But she doesn't go around telling everyone that.

"She always wants to share the attention. She's shy about having to speak in public and isn't a fiery speech giver," Roos says. "Having talented people around her is part of it – and being approachable and not arrogant."

Creamer says her approach is very simple: "I'm not afraid to ask. I try to be positive, and not talk about what's wrong with this system but what is right with what I'm proposing."

10 Things you can do, as stated in "Farm to Fork: A Guide to Building North Carolina's Sustainable Local Food Economy"

1. Cook with fresh, seasonal, local foods.

2. Buy from your local farmers and food businesses.

3. Start your own or participate in a community garden.

4. Advocate for healthy foods at your child's school or day care.

5. Organize a farmers' market, community-supported agriculture program (CSA), or food buying club.

6. Build food-system relationships.

7. Promote transparency in packaged foods.

8. Support the development of community farm and garden trusts.

9. Involve children and youth. Cook with your children.

10. Monitor statewide local food policy and developments. Go to www.cefs.ncsu.edu/getinvolved/listserv s.html, www.ncabr.gov/localfood, www.ncfoodnet.org.

Raleigh freelance writer Debbie Moose is the author of five cookbooks, including new Buttermilk: A Savor the South Cookbook. She is a former food editor of The News & Observer and writes two columns for the paper. Her blog is at www.debbiemoose.com.