High Country Food Hub provides another avenue to support local during COVID-19

Emily Broyles, Reporter

Boone residents looking for local produce and isolated shopping still have a way of getting groceries through Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture’s online farmers market, High Country Food Hub.

While some establishments have moved to online and to-go services, development director Dave Walker said shopping at the food hub is customizable and “similar to Amazon.”

“One thing about the food hub that you don’t have the same experience as you would at the farmer’s market is face-to-face certification. So, like walking up to your farmer and saying like, ‘What did you spray on these tomatoes?’” Walker said.

Customers can shop on the food hub’s website Thursday through Monday each week. After orders are placed, staff organize customized orders that are picked up by customers the following Wednesday between 11:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. at 252 Poplar Grove Rd.

Walker said the food hub tries to be “as transparent as possible” on its website, listing producer details, production practices and certifications of the companies and foods. 

During COVID-19, Walker said the food hub’s staff is small after losing interns and limiting their volunteer numbers. This has been a change for the hub, as sales and customer turnout in recent weeks have almost tripled the farmer’s market busiest week: the week Earth Fare closed. 

“Scaling your business by 5.5 times in two weeks is pretty stressful on the systems, but the thing about local food is that it’s constantly innovating, and so we were able to adapt really quickly in the food hub’s space,” Walker said. 

Walker said the food hub has benefited local producers, especially while restrictions on restaurants are in place. 

“You can walk into almost any independent restaurant in Boone and order local food and that’s awesome, but over the last two weeks, we’ve seen a lot of restaurants close,” Walker said. We’ve seen a lot of typical customers leave, whether they’re seasonal customers, they’re students. It’s a pretty scary time as far as what market channels are available to producers.”

BFR Beef Inc., a fifth-generation family farm, ships meats from its website and offers produce to restaurants. Owner Daniel Brown said producing meat for the food hub has diversified his product placement.

“We’re a producer for the food hub because this gives us another marketing tool in our tool belt to sell our products,” Brown said. 

Brown said grocery stores can be hectic, this time is an opportunity for people to shop local and reevaluate their shopping habits.

“It makes people think about their food. We have the greatest supply chain management in all the world, here in the U.S., and we’re just very fortunate, and we take that for granted, and now we’re all freaking out,” Brown said. “You don’t see people putting their raw produce on the produce belt. People are taking a little bit more precautions.”

Another local farmer and producer for the food hub, Edward Greer, said fresh produce “makes a big difference in your quality of life.” Greer’s Deep Gap-based farm, Aunt Bessie’s Natural Farm, plans to provide its pasture-raised eggs to customers through the food hub. 

“You’ve got a thing occurring right now that is not only is it making it difficult to find food in some places, but it’s becoming very difficult for many people to get food at all,” Greer said. “Here at the food hub, people can come and get enormous amounts of healthy food.” 

F.A.R.M. Cafe’s “F.A.R.M. Full Circle” program is another producer for the food hub. 

Elena Dalton, program director of F.A.R.M. Full Circle, said the cafe is shifting all operations to outreach April 1. The cafe will work closely with BRWIA’s food hub, and provide ready-to-eat meals and side items to customers through a food recovery and redistribution program of using “imperfect fruits and vegetables.” 

“For every one pint of food we can sell for the suggested donation at the food hub, we can send out four at no charge,” Dalton said.  

Dalton said local produce can benefit anyone.

“It takes the number of people handling your food from dozens or hundreds down to like one or two. When you’re purchasing from a local farmer, you’re really decreasing the amount (of times) that your food has been handled. You are supporting your local economy and your neighbors, and you’re also supporting a more equitable and just food system,” Dalton said.