Editor’s Note: Brock Pierce is Marketing Communications Manager at Innovate Carolina.
CHAPEL HILL – Have you ever thought of farmers as the ultimate entrepreneurs? Or considered how the food we eat can taste good and create social good at the same time?
At a recent panel discussion hosted by Innovate Carolina at 79° West Innovation Center and Coworking Space, a group of farmers, social innovators, food entrepreneurs, and professors from UNC-Chapel Hill discussed the intriguing links between the food we grow and our physical, mental, and social well-being.
During the hour-long conversation, key insights emerged on how local communities can think differently about the different roles food-based organizations can play in improving our way of life. Participants also got a glimpse of opportunities to get involved with organizations that put agriculture and food to work to improve well-being.
- Digging in dirt is good for your mental health. Whether you’re gardening or working on a large-scale farm, being outside in the sun and getting your hands dirty working in the soil increases levels of dopamine — a neurotransmitter associated with mental health — in your brain, says Matt Ballard, the program manager at UNC Farm at Penny Lane. The organization is home to the UNC Community Mental Health Center of Excellence’s innovative mental health recovery programs, such as therapeutic horticulture and other nature-based therapeutic approaches. Ballard says the Penny Lane Farm is trying to get the medical system to see how these types of activities — especially being on a farm — benefit a person’s physical and mental health.
- Farms don’t just cultivate. They also create new life opportunities for people. Women recently released from prison face many difficulties and uncertainties. But what if there was a farm where they could go live and start laying the groundwork for a better future? Tanya Jisa explained why she was inspired to found Benevolence Farm, which provides employment and housing for women returning from prison. Jisa, who is an assistant clinical professor as well as community education coordinator for the Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab at UNC Chapel Hill, spoke with farmers about the need to create a place that would support women to their release from prison – and how she then worked to make the idea a reality. Today, Benevolence Farm provides accommodation for six women who currently reside on the farm and have launched a line of body care products, says Jisa.
- The business side of farming – and the mental stresses associated with it – needs more education and attention. Farming involves more than learning how to sow seeds, says Michelle Wright, co-founder of The Farmers BAG. Wright’s organization helps the farming community through outreach, supporting older farmers, and training young people in agricultural business. Agriculture is a complex business model that is compounded by uncertainties in seasonal crop yields and generational tensions, she explained. And farmers – who face the second highest suicide rate among professional fields – need help developing business plans and models, she noted. From obtaining the proper licenses and insurance to tax documents and other aspects of starting a small business, farmers benefit from the programs offered by the Wright sisters’ 11-acre farm, which is an avenue they use to help young and old farmers. The organization provides current and future farmers with hands-on learning experiences that lead to healthier farming business practices and personal well-being.
- Food insecurity calls for new changes in food systems. Food insecurity – lack of access to affordable, nutritious food – is an issue plaguing significant numbers in North Carolina. A UNC-Chapel Hill food insecurity report says the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem in the state: As of fall 2021, one in three children in rural of North Carolina was food insecure. Two UNC-affiliated companies are using new business models — and frozen food strategies — to reduce food insecurity and ensure people in communities across North Carolina and beyond can have better access to healthy and tasty food. Equiti Foods, a startup founded by Alice Ammerman, Mildred Kaufman Emeritus Professor of Nutrition at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, has created a product called Good Bowls. A frozen meal, Good Bowls uses produce from local farms, based on the Mediterranean diet and tailored to Southeastern U.S. dietary preferences, Ammerman says. Equiti Foods is also using a cost-offset model to make the bowls more affordable for low-income people, and the company is currently testing the product on blue-collar job sites. Seal the Seasons, a company co-founded by UNC students – now alumni – is taking a different route. The company is creating a demand-driven system in grocery stores for local family farm produce, says Alex Piasecki, one of the company’s co-founders and chief operating officer. By freezing produce like blueberries, strawberries and peaches to peak freshness, Seal the Seasons provides local small and medium-sized farmers with new markets to sell their produce. It also offers consumers from a wide range of communities a way to access and buy healthy foods.
About the Author
Brock Pierce is Marketing Communications Manager at Innovate Carolina. Brock orchestrates communications for Innovate Carolina, working with faculty, students, and staff to tell the story of innovation and entrepreneurship at UNC-Chapel Hill. His communications expertise includes content and creative development, executive communications and messaging, web and social media, email and newsletter communications, news writing and storytelling. Brock has 20 years of marketing, branding and communications experience with global corporations, advertising agencies and in-house creative teams.
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