October 2017 – When Claire McLendon accepted NC Growing Together’s  summer Local Food Supply Chain Apprenticeship in 2016, she had no idea it would actually lead to a two-summer apprenticeship and then a full-time job.  McLendon, then a Master’s student at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, was placed with Working Landscapes and Farmer Foodshare to examine processing and distribution from Working Landscape’s Chopped Produce Initiative through Farmer Foodshare’s distribution hub and into institutional markets. (See Claire’s final presentation here .)

Then, in 2017, a unique opportunity arose with NCGT partner Seal the Seasons: a second-year “Senior Apprentice” position in which she would work with Ali Huber, a first-year NCGT Apprentice, to conduct Seal the Seasons’ first formal evaluation of their work.  Based in Hillsborough NC, Seal the Seasons’ mission is “to make local food available year round for all people”.  The company purchases local produce in season from family farmers and flash freezes it for year-round consumption.  Their products – including blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, peaches, and broccoli – can be found in the frozen aisle of retail grocery stores including Lowes Foods and Harris Teeter.

“Seal the Seasons has been pioneering the local frozen supply chain model with local family farmers, and being successful for us means making sure it works for everyone in the supply chain.   We wanted to evaluate our work from the farmers’ perspective to learn how to improve our business for everyone,” says Patrick Mateer, Seal the Seasons’ Founder and Chief Executive Officer.

Claire and Ali spent the summer driving across North Carolina – they put 3,000 miles on Claire’s car – and interviewed 20 of the 25 farmers who currently supply Seal the Seasons.  Their interviews yielded valuable results, including feedback on ways the company could improve its communications and logistics (see Claire and Ali’s final presentation here ). “Having Claire and Ali conduct this evaluation will help us continue lifetime partnerships with our farms.  We’re a young company and evaluation is critical,” says Mateer.

For Claire, the work was deepened by her understanding of the health benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption. “I wrote about half of my graduate student research papers on how important it is to consume enough fruits and vegetables.  The research is really strong there, that that’s a key part of improving peoples’ health outcomes. And yet growing and transporting fruits and vegetables is a tricky, resource-intensive business. So I think that continuing to bring data-driven, evaluation-driven work to building out local food supply chains is critical,” she says.

The work also lead to Mateer’s realization that he needed to add a full-time farmer liaison to his team.  Claire now holds that new position, Director of Farm Development.  The position serves as the first point of contact for farmers and coordinates communications and logistics for the company.  “In a competitive market, it can be difficult to dedicate resources to working with small farmers when you could just buy in quantity from big farmers. Having Claire able to work full-time during the summer confirmed my belief that it was a wise business move to create this full-time position,” Mateer says.

NCGT is currently recruiting business and non-profit mentors for its 2018 Local Supply Chain Summer Apprenticeship. For more information, contact NCGT Project Manager Rebecca Dunning, 919-389-2220 or rebecca_dunning@ncsu.edu.

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 NC Growing Together Newsletter.