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

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

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


CHAPEL HILL – Ever thought of farmers as the ultimate entrepreneurs? Or considered how the food we eat can taste good and create social good at the same time?

During a recent discussion panel hosted by Innovate Carolina at the 79° West innovation hub and coworking space, 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 wellness.

Over the course of the hour-long conversation, key insights emerged about how local communities can think differently about the various roles that food-based organizations can play in improving how we live. Attendees also got a glimpse at opportunities to get involved with organizations that put farming and food to work to improve wellness.

  1. Digging in the dirt is good for your mental health. Whether you’re gardening or working on a full-scale farm, being outside in the sun and getting your hands dirty while working in the soil raises the levels of dopamine – a neurotransmitter associated with mental health – in your brain, says Matt Ballard, the program manager at the UNC Farm at Penny Lane. The organization houses the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health’s innovative mental health recovery programs, such as therapeutic horticulture and other nature-based therapeutic approaches. Ballard says the Farm at Penny Lane is trying to pull the medical system into seeing how these kinds of activities – especially being on a farm – are beneficial to a person’s physical and mental health.
  2. Farms don’t just grow crops. They also grow new life opportunities for people. Women who are recently released from prison face many hardships and uncertainties. But what if there was a farm where they could go live and start to create the foundation for a brighter future? Tanya Jisa discussed why she was inspired to found Benevolence Farm, which provides employment and housing for women returning from prison. Jisa, who serves as an Assistant Clinical Professor as well as the Community Education Coordinator for the Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab at UNC Chapel Hill, talked with farmers about the need to create a place that would support women when they got out of prison – and how she then worked to make the idea a reality. Today, Benevolence Farm offers housing for six women who currently reside on the farm and have started a body-care product line, says Jisa.
  3. The business side of farming – and the mental stresses associated with it – need 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 assists the agricultural community through outreach, support of older famers, and providing farming business education to young people. Farming is a complex business model that is compounded by the uncertainties of seasonal crop yields and generational stresses, she explained. And farmers – who face the second highest rate of suicide among professional fields – need assistance with developing business plans and models, she noted. From obtaining the correct licenses and insurance to tax documents and the other aspects of launching a small business, farmers benefit from the programs offered by the Wright sisters’ 11-acre farm, which is an avenue they use to help farmers young and old. The organization gives current and future farmers hands-on learning experiences that lead to healthier farming business practices and personal well-being.
  4. Food insecurity calls for novel changes to food systems. Food insecurity – the lack of access to affordable, nutritious food – is an issue that plagues a significant number of North Carolinians. A food insecurity report from UNC-Chapel Hill indicates that the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the issue in the state: as of fall 2021, one in three children in rural North Carolina were food insecure. Two UNC-affiliated ventures are using novel business models – and frozen food strategies – to reduce food insecurity and make sure people in communities across North Carolina and beyond can get better access to tasty, healthy food. Equiti Foods, a startup founded by Alice Ammerman, the Mildred Kaufman Distinguished Professor of nutrition at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, has created a product called Good Bowls. A frozen meal, Good Bowls uses produce that is locally sourced from farms, based on the Mediterranean diet and adapted to Southeastern US food preferences, says Ammerman. Equiti Foods also uses a cost-offset model to make the bowls more affordable for those with lower incomes, and the company is currently testing the product at blue-collar work sites. Seal the Seasons, a company co-founded by UNC students – now alumni – takes a different track. The company is creating a demand-driven system in grocery stores for local family farm produce, says Alex Piasecki, one of the company’s co-founders and Chief Operating Officer. By flash-freezing produce like blueberries, strawberries and peaches at the peak of freshness, Seal the Seasons provides small-to-midsize 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 by working with faculty, students and staff to tell the story of innovation and entrepreneurship at UNC-Chapel Hill. His communications expertise 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 working in marketing, branding and communications with global corporations, advertising agencies and in-house creative teams.


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