Why does an insurance company care about farming?
It’s a fair question. And Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina’s (BCBSNC) mission statement answers it: We work to improve the health and well-being of our customers and communities.
Our company and the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, an independent nonprofit, want to make our state a better place to live for all of us. Feeding the hungry and promoting healthy eating are vital to our efforts, not only in the context of compassion, but also with respect to economics.
Agriculture is a $76 billion industry in North Carolina – nearly one-fifth of the state’s economy. Our state’s food industry competes on a global scale, with a wide range of foods springing from our soil: apples, asparagus, blueberries, broccoli, cantaloupes, cherries, eggplant, greens, melons, okra, peppers, squash, tomatoes, zucchini. Sticking to a seasonal menu comprised only of NC-grown foods, you could eat like royalty.
Consumers have discovered this. Restaurants are responding to consumer demand for locally grown foods, producing menus centered around the seasonal offerings from local farms. Most communities in the state now boast at least one farmers’ market. From elementary schools to universities, agricultural instruction is available to students of any age.
There are a multitude of advantages to eating food grown locally: local foods travel shorter distances, local fruits and vegetables remain on the vine longer, providing them with more nutrients and more flavor; we can decrease the use of fossil fuels used to transport foods over long distances; we can preserve the open spaces that make our state so beautiful; we can maintain and even generate food-related jobs and businesses here in North Carolina.
Eat Local & Farm to Fork
The “Eat local!” movement is often referred to as farm-to-table or farm-to-fork. Here in North Carolina, the farm-to-fork philosophy has – pardon the pun – taken root and continues to grow. BCBSNC is a big supporter of the movement, sponsoring the annual Farm-to-Fork Weekend organized by NC State University’s Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS). The event is a showcase for some of the state’s award-winning restaurants and chefs who are committed to using local ingredients in their dishes.
Our work with CEFS also includes support of their Farming Apprenticeship Program, a hands-on work/study initiative that trains students in the many aspects of agriculture. With the average age of farmers in this country at 58, it’s vitally important that we draw a new generation into farming and provide them with opportunities to learn the science and the economics of agriculture.
The Role of Education
For younger students, schools play an important role in growing the next generation of consumers who will sustain North Carolina’s food economy. The NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Farm to School program, supported by the BCBSNC Foundation, connects NC school children to NC produce statewide. And students in elementary, middle and high schools can learn about the importance of eating local foods as they’re eating them.
Children learn healthy – or unhealthy – eating habits early on. Bad habits can already be firmly in place by high school. A 2013 research report from the Centers for Disease Control found that 40% of North Carolina high school students eat vegetables less than once per day. That means many of these students are going days at a time without eating any vegetables at all.
To reach kids early, the BCBSNC Foundation supports the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project’s NC Farm to Preschool Network. The aim is to enhance the health and education of young children by developing experiential learning programs that connect children – and their families – with local food and farms. The Farm to Preschool program provides hands-on lessons on growing and cooking food, visits to local farms and encourages parental involvement.
Perhaps my favorite of Blue Cross’ food system support initiatives is Nourishing North Carolina, a collaboration with the NC Recreation and Park Association. Nourishing North Carolina has a practical solution to feeding hungry families and promoting locally grown foods: community gardens. We are nearing our goal of establishing community gardens in all 100 counties of the state, providing fresh fruits and vegetables to the needy and enlisting hundreds of volunteers who are actively engaged with their communities.
These are just a few examples of the kinds of efforts that can take North Carolina’s food economy from top-tier all the way to top-of-the-list. We can improve the state’s fiscal health while we improve our own physical health.
How You Can Support Your Local Farmer
One way to do both is through the 2016 Farm to Fork Weekend, an event BCBSNC is proud to sponsor. The June 3-5 weekend features a family-friendly Friday night barbecue and square dance in Saxapahaw, a more formal dinner at the Durham Hotel on Saturday night, and a picnic at Breeze Farm in Hurdle Mills on Sunday. The entire weekend offers a bounty of North Carolina foods prepared by some of the most respected chefs in the state, and it’s a major fundraiser for CEFS and the W.C. Breeze Family Farm Agricultural Extension and Research Center.
Beyond all that, our state’s foods are some of the most nutritious and flavorful you can find. Let’s make
North Carolina stronger with every delicious mouthful!
[Top image: Shutterstock]