Carolina Farm Trust CEO Zack Wyatt kicks our interview off with a simple phrase: “Every major geopolitical issue we have is coming from the dirt, in one fashion or another.”
In some ways, one could argue that his nonprofit’s latest project, a local food production and distribution center in west Charlotte’s Thomasboro-Hoskins neighborhood, worked in reverse. After all, it was due to COVID (a geopolitical issue) that city leaders were able to see the need for this project, allowing Carolina Farm Trust to secure the funding needed for the warehouse, located on what is currently just an abandoned lot (the dirt).
Wyatt says a global pandemic is, for many, what it took to recognize how important local foodways are.
“Once you start realizing that the average grocery store has about two and a half days of regular buying patterns before it’s empty … no one could ignore how fragile our [food] systems are.”
On Feb. 14, Charlotte City Council voted to allocate $1.5 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to the Local Foods Production and Distribution Center (LFPDC), the straightforward working title for the project. The location is the site of an old food production and distribution facility on South Hoskins Road, with 25,000 square feet of existing building space and 60,000 square feet of open space around it.
Upon completion, the facility will include an event space, a butchery, a grocery store, a teaching kitchen and more. CFT will buy and sell local food out of the space, including produce, livestock and dairy, while also providing patio space to gather and eat onsite.
Wyatt and the team at Carolina Farm Trust plan to make the facility an oasis in west Charlotte’s food desert, and though the organization’s reach spans throughout the Carolinas, they want to keep this effort as close to home as possible.
From the dirt
Founded in 2015, Carolina Farm Trust (CFT) supports a network of local farms through grants, equipment and land leasing, as well as product distribution throughout the Carolinas. Its own urban farms comprise part of that network, including several in the Charlotte area.
CFT’s two largest urban farms, Free Spirit Farm and Mill Grove Farm Co-op, are located just outside Charlotte — in Huntersville and Indian Trail, respectively — whereas the oldest property, Urban Farm at Aldersgate, is located in and serves east Charlotte.
While COVID-19 may have opened some people’s eyes to the need for this new project, that’s just a small silver lining on a pandemic that has otherwise been “devestating” to Carolina Farm Trust, Wyatt says.
Upon COVID-19’s arrival in North Carolina in spring 2020, many of the plans CFT had made would need to be scrapped or postponed, and the longtime vision for a food distribution facility on the west side, a work in progress since 2019, would be placed on the back burner.
Then about a year into the pandemic, a series of serendipitous meetings changed that. In April 2021, Wyatt’s colleague mentioned the idea to a friend of hers. As luck would have it, that friend’s family owned an unused warehouse on Hoskins Road that perfectly fit their acreage and location preferences.
From there, it was a mad dash to piece together plans, secure funding and purchase the property. In time, both the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners and the Charlotte City Council caught wind of CFT’s project and inquired about how they could support it.
Wyatt met with representatives to discuss Charlotte’s foodways and took them on tours through the new property. Carolina Farm Trust secured a total of $4.5 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding from both governing bodies.
There’s still a long road ahead, the anticipated cost of renovations and the first three years of operation totals $14 million, the rest of which CFT still has to fundraise for, but Wyatt remains optimistic that the facility will open by May 2023.
“Everyone has just been so positive,” he says. “It just fell into our lap.”
For the west side, by the west side
For LFPDC general manager Chris Peake, the devastation of west Charlotte’s foodways began long before COVID-19.
Peake grew up just a few blocks from the site, and as a child he remembered seeing grocery stores gradually disappear from his neighborhood. Fresh produce became difficult to come by.
“You’d look up, and it’d be like, ‘Oh, all I got is Oodles of Noodles and canned products,’” he remembers.
Yet Peake had never worked in the nonprofit sector until 2021. While working as a used car salesman, an old friend named Beverly Knox-Davis told him to apply for the role of general manager for the new distribution center. Peake initially wasn’t going to pursue the position, but a phone call with Wyatt changed his mind.
“Zack is so passionate,” Peake says. “He’s just got working knowledge of the food desert problem.”
Wyatt knew right away that Peake was a good fit for the team, too.
“We’re working internally to hire any local people that we possibly can,” Wyatt says. “[Peake] is born and raised in Charlotte … and he’s hit the ground running.”
Preserving local autonomy has always been a major part of Carolina Farm Trust’s work. And as Wyatt, who moved to Charlotte in 2003, came to understand this city’s rapid rate of gentrification, keeping the integrity of underserved communities became more important to him.
“Whatever we do, we make sure that the community living there now can stay there as long as they want. Our first fear with a project in a neighborhood like Thomasboro-Hoskins is gentrification,” says Wyatt.
With that in mind, Peake and Wyatt made it a priority to connect with their neighbors. They began by attending meetings for the Historic Hoskins Coalition Group (HHCG), a board charged with taking care of the Hoskins neighborhood. Together, they had conversations about food desertification in west Charlotte and how a distribution center could help.
Currently, CFT is planning a brunch and tour of the facility for the HHCG board.
“We want them to be involved from the start to the finish,” Peake says.
To Peake and the rest of Carolina Farm Trust, the job isn’t worth doing without the blessing of Thomasboro-Hoskins residents.
When I ask Peake what drove him to switch to nonprofit work, his answer was simple: “Why did I choose this position? Because of my community. I work for them.”
Wyatt feels fortunate to have received federal funding, but still, he emphasizes that emergency relief funding isn’t enough to resolve the crisis in the Carolinas’ foodways.
“Corporations, foundations and the private sector will hopefully understand that we need to have a refocus on system change and system change funding,” he insists.
But when system change comes at a glacial pace, Carolina Farm Trust has had to get creative with its crisis response. As Peake walked me through the facility blueprint, he told me about some of those ideas, starting with the facility’s test kitchen.
“Let’s say that people come in and purchase [food] with EBT or SNAP. A lot of people don’t have time to cook, and with EBT and SNAP, you can’t buy cooked food. But see, we’re going to turn that upside down. You can buy your food, and then you can get it prepared [in the test kitchen].”
There’s a dozen other little innovations in their plans: rooftop gardens, dining facilities in remodeled boxcars, a video system for test kitchen chefs to broadcast what they’re cooking. What lies at the heart of it is connecting local farmers with local consumers.
“If it’s grown here, we’re going to source from here,” Wyatt said.
Though CFT is undertaking a massive project, Wyatt sees it as just one small step towards ending what he calls “the caste system of food distribution” in the Carolinas.
“We could be a leader in food sustainability and creating food systems that are decentralized and equitable for chrissakes,” he says. “It’s going to take every one of us to buy in for it to work.”