Food for thought: How can farm-focused entrepreneurship improve mental health and social good?

Editor’s Note: Brock Pierce is Marketing Communications Manager, Innovate Carolina.


CHAPEL HILL – Have you ever thought of farmers as the best entrepreneurs? Or consider how the food we eat can taste good and create social good at the same time?

During a recent panel discussion hosted by Innovate Carolina at the innovation center and coworking space 79° West, a group of farmers, social innovators, food entrepreneurs and UNC-Chapel Hill professors discussed intriguing connections between the food we grow and our physical, mental and social well-being.

Over the course of the hour-long conversation, key insights emerged about how local communities can think differently about the different roles that food-based organizations can play in improving the way we live. Attendees also had an insight into opportunities to get involved with organizations that use agriculture and food to improve well-being.

  1. Digging in the dirt is good for your mental health. Whether you’re gardening or working on a large farm, being out in the sun and getting your hands dirty while working in the soil raises levels of dopamine—a neurotransmitter associated with mental health—in your brain, says Matt Ballard, the farm’s program manager. of UNC at Penny Lane. The organization houses the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health’s innovative mental health recovery programs, such as therapeutic gardening and other nature-based therapeutic approaches. Ballard says Penny Lane Farm is trying to get the medical system to see how these types of activities — especially on a farm — are beneficial to a person’s physical and mental health.
  2. Farms don’t just grow crops. They also create new opportunities for people’s lives. Women who have recently been released from prison face many difficulties and insecurities. But what if there was a farm where they could live and start building the foundation for a brighter future? Tanya Jissa discussed why she was inspired to start Benevolence Farm, which provides work and housing for women returning from prison. Jissa, who works as an assistant professor of clinical medicine as well as the community education coordinator for the Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab at UNC Chapel Hill, spoke with farmers about the need to create a place to support women when they get out of prison— and how she then worked to make the idea a reality. Today, Benevolence Farm offers housing for six women who currently live on the farm and have started a body care product line, says Jissa.
  3. The business of agriculture – and the mental stress associated with it – needs more education and attention. Farming involves a lot more than learning how to put seeds in the ground, says Michelle Wright, co-founder of The Farmers BAG. Wright’s organization supports the farming community through outreach, supporting older farmers and providing agribusiness education to young people. Agriculture is a complex business model that is complicated by the uncertainty of seasonal crop yields and intergenerational tensions, she explained. And farmers — who face the second-highest suicide rate among occupational fields — need help developing business plans and models, she noted. From obtaining the proper licenses and insurance to tax paperwork and other aspects of starting a small business, farmers benefit from the programs offered by the Wright Sisters’ 11-acre farm, an avenue they use to help young and old. farmers. The organization provides current and future farmers with hands-on experience that leads to healthier agricultural business practices and personal well-being.
  4. Food insecurity requires new changes in food systems. Food insecurity—the lack of access to affordable, nutritious food—is a problem that plagues a significant number of North Carolinians. A report on food insecurity from UNC-Chapel Hill shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem in the state: As of fall 2021, one in three children in rural North Carolina was food insecure. Two UNC-affiliated businesses are using new business models—and frozen food strategies—to reduce food insecurity and ensure that people in communities across North Carolina and beyond can get better access to delicious, healthy food . Equiti Foods, a startup founded by Alice Ammerman, Mildred Kaufman Distinguished Professor of Nutrition at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, created a product called Good Bowls. A frozen meal, Good Bowls uses products that are locally sourced from farms based on the Mediterranean diet and adapted to the dietary preferences of the US Southeast, Ammerman says. Equiti Foods also uses a cost-reimbursement model to make the bowls more affordable for those on lower incomes, and the company is currently testing the product in blue-collar jobs. Seal the Seasons, a company co-founded by UNC students – now alumni – is taking a different route. The company is creating a demand-driven system in grocery stores for products from local family farms, says Alex Piasecki, one of the company’s co-founders and chief operating officer. By flash freezing produce such as blueberries, strawberries and peaches at their peak freshness, Seal the Seasons provides small to medium-sized local farmers with new markets to sell their produce. It also offers a way for consumers in a wide range of communities to access and purchase healthy food.

About the author

Brock Pierce is Marketing Communications Manager, Innovate Carolina. Brock orchestrates Innovate Carolina’s communications, working with faculty, students and staff to tell the story of innovation and entrepreneurship at UNC-Chapel Hill. His communications experience includes content and creative development, executive communications and messaging, web and social media, email and newsletter communications, news writing and storytelling. Brock has 20 years of experience in marketing, branding and communications with global corporations, advertising agencies and in-house creative teams.


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