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High Country Food Hub Sees Major Increases in Customer Sales and in Food Supply From Local Farmers

By Nathan Ham

Wednesdays at the High Country Food Hub are busier now than ever before with customers arriving to pick up the orders they placed online.

The High Country Food Hub was started in 2016 and has become a great outlet for people to purchase local food from local farmers across the High Country. Customers place their orders online at any time Thursday through Monday and then arrive on Wednesday between the hours of noon and 7 p.m. at the Watauga County Agricultural Services Center to pick up their orders.

Over the past two months, with the COVID-19 pandemic going on, the number of customers and the number of sales have greatly increased.

“The Food Hub has seen a 583 percent increase in average sales and a 400 percent increase in the average number of customers that it serves comparing February 2020 to April 2020,” said Liz Whiteman, the Operations Director for Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture. “We’ve also seen an increase in the number of local farmers and producers who see the Food Hub has a viable market channel.”

Whiteman says that many farmers are using the Food Hub to sell products that they would normally sell directly to restaurants. Farmers are also listing a bigger volume available for people to purchase at the hub. With restaurants limited to only take-out and delivery options, the Food Hub has been an option for farmers to use that have lost out on sales to restaurants that simply don’t need as much food as before without being able to open their dining rooms.

The process for folks to come up and pick up their orders has also gone through some changes in large part due to social distancing guidelines.

“We’ve moved order pick up outside to the parking lot of the Agricultural Center, and have folks stand in line spaced six feet apart until we bring their order out to a table,” said Whiteman. “All volunteers wear masks and we’ve found that almost everyone coming to pick up their orders wear masks and are very cognizant of social distancing. We’re doing everything we can to make the community feel safe while also making sure that folks can access local, healthy food.”

Speaking of those helpful volunteers, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the loss of a few volunteers that were attending Appalachian State.

“We lost almost all of our interns when App State went online and we definitely miss all of them,” said Whiteman. “But (N.C.) Cooperative Extension staff have stepped in and helped us immensely, and we have a small but very dedicated group of volunteers who are instrumental in us being able to handle this sudden growth. We couldn’t do it without them.”

Nobody really knows when some type of normalcy will return to the High Country, but for the time being, the Food Hub is appreciative of all of their customers and farmers who have come together to promote local food sources and healthy food options.

“We’re happy about this unexpected growth of the Food Hub, and hope that customers will continue to support local farmers by purchasing local produce and meat as we return to some type of normality,” Whiteman said.

Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture and the High Country Food Hub are excited to announce a partnership with Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, funders, and food hubs across North Carolina to launch FarmsSHARE.

“The program will connect out-of-work restaurant and hospitality employees with a free weekly box of fresh produce, with a free protein option, from their place of former employment for eight weeks, beginning in the High Country on Thursday, May 21,” said Whiteman. “The High Country Food Hub’s role is to connect seven restaurant partners with local food for the 89 participants. We will purchase local food from growers, build out the shares, and connect the shares with restaurant partners who will distribute them to their employees.”

For more information on the High Country Food Hub, visit this website or call 828-412-0834. The Food Hub is located at 252 Poplar Grove Road in Boone.