Impact Profile

If you’ve walked into a Lowes Foods store recently, perhaps you’ve noticed it: North Carolina products – tomatoes, strawberries, sweet potatoes, fish, pasture-raised pork, honey – throughout the store. The Winston-Salem based, family-owned grocery chain and its sister company, Merchants Distributors, have always been committed to buying and distributing locally-grown and produced items. Recent efforts are building on this commitment and allowing Lowes Foods – which operates 95 stores in North Carolina – to expand and promote locally-sourced products throughout their stores.

Lowes Foods was already purchasing in-season, locally-grown fresh fruits and vegetables in their North Carolina stores when it joined CEFS’ NC 10% Campaign in March 2012. The NC 10% Campaign aims to support a statewide local food economy by encouraging all individuals and businesses in North Carolina to spend 10% of their existing food dollars on locally-produced foods. At the time, Lowes Foods Produce Director Richard McKellogg said, “Our commitment to buying local has not wavered, nor do we view this as a trend. Each year we continue to focus more of our resources toward this initiative to support our local neighbors.”

Local food display at Lowes

A Lowes Foods display highlighting local produce and other offerings. (Photo: Ariel Fugate/Lowes Foods)

Now, as a major partner of CEFS’ NC Growing Together initiative, Lowes has made a commitment to modifying their supply chains and buying practices to source more local products from the state’s small and mid-sized farmers and fishers. NC Growing Together unites dozens of partners statewide to bring more locally-produced meat, dairy, seafood, and produce into North Carolina’s mainstream retail and food service supply chains, including those that serve Lowes Foods and Fort Bragg US Army installation.

Working with CEFS and other NC Growing Together partners, Lowes added over 30 farms as vendors delivering direct to stores in 2013, tripling direct-to-store produce purchasing from 2012 levels. Local seafood and meat sourcing increased as well, including North Carolina flounder and shrimp, heritage breed pork chops and other high-value meat cuts. CEFS initiative NC Choices has played a pivotal role in facilitating the entry of local meats into Lowes’ supply chains.

“Our partnership with CEFS and NC Growing Together has helped us facilitate a consistent channel in reaching out to producers of all sizes across our state. The effort has shown an immediate impact not only in our local offerings but also in being able to really support those families and individuals who work and shop in the communities in which we operate.”
– Richard McKellogg, Lowes Foods Produce Director

At the front lines of Lowes Foods’ local produce purchasing is Ariel Fugate, an NC State University graduate who now works for Lowes as their Locally Grown Accounts Representative, and NC A&T as liaison to the NC Growing Together project.

Ariel’s path to local foods began during her freshman year at NC State, when she discovered the CEFS-affiliated undergraduate Agroecology program. “I had to switch

[majors],” she says. “I had never studied something so interdisciplinary before. I was really drawn to the fact that we were studying systems instead of just one piece.” CEFS Assistant Director for Educational Programs Dr. Michelle Schroeder-Moreno was one of Ariel’s mentors, and helped her design a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies that focused on the three pillars of sustainability in food systems – economic, social, and environmental.

Ariel Fugate and Kathleen Merrigan

Former USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan (second from left) with Ariel (center) and other students integral to the founding of the Campus Farmers Market at NCSU, February 2011. Former Deputy Secretary Merrigan visited CEFS as part of her “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” College Tour. (Photo: Becky Kirkland/NCSU Ag.Communications)

With Dr. Schroeder-Moreno’s encouragement, Ariel and other students established the Campus Farmers Market at NC State, which is now entering its sixth year. “That brought together all the pieces of sustainability, and really allowed me to apply what I was learning,” says Ariel. Her interactions with CEFS faculty had a lasting impact. “Dr. Schroeder-Moreno really stands out because she really values student input and tries to involve students in everything. It seems as though everyone at CEFS feels that way – that there’s no point in doing what we do if we don’t involve young people.”

Now, Ariel is poised to complete the transition from student to mentor: she will be supervising three Lowes Foods local foods interns sponsored by the NC Growing Together project. The interns will learn about sourcing local foods for a major retail chain, and help develop best practices for in-store displays of local foods. Says Ariel, “Having started as intern under Richard McKellogg, I appreciate his patience as I learned to navigate a retail scale beyond the campus market. I am looking forward to mentoring interns as he did with me and helping to incorporate their fresh ideas into Lowes Foods stores.”

Top photo: NC State University Communications