Danny and Jackie Peed have been in the business of slaughtering, processing, and distributing eastern North Carolina meat for over thirty years. But what they’re most excited about are their new vegetable boxes. In the spring of 2011, the Peeds received a small grant from RAFI’s Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund to purchase equipment that would allow them to sort and process produce from local farmers and deliver low-cost produce boxes to homes throughout northeastern North Carolina.
The Peeds developed the model of retail home-delivery more than five years ago with “meat boxes”. They started selling retail out of necessity; as large companies like Smithfield grew and increased their ability to cut costs and sell at lower prices, small businesses like the Peeds’ Robersonville Packing Company (RPC) could no longer compete on the wholesale market. The Peeds had a contract to process and sell a certain amount of livestock from farmers, but they knew that RPC wouldn’t be able to find a wholesale buyer for it. With the amount of rural grocery stores dwindling and the cost of fuel rising, the Peeds found a business opportunity in home delivery and truck sales. With an EBT machine to process SNAP (food stamp) benefits, Robersonville Packing Company was able to sell to low-income residents of the rural northeast, particularly elders and single mothers. Danny says that today, about eighty percent of RPC customers use SNAP benefits.
When I first met Jackie, she was in the Robersonville Packing Company office, located a few miles from the slaughtering facility in an abandoned Purdue plant that she and Danny bought in 2006. The former Purdue plant is now an office, processing, and storage facility on the edge of town, with a residential neighborhood on one side and acres of row crop on the other. The minimal overhead cost of RPC help keep the price of meat and produce boxes low, but it also requires that Jackie spend many hours on the phone each day, taking orders, giving instructions to novice cooks on what to do with their bag of collards, or simply offering solace to customers who have run out of basic supplies like detergent and toothpaste. Because of these kinds of conversations, the Peeds have started supplementing their food boxes with free non-food items that are ineligible for SNAP purchase, such as toilet paper, soap, and detergent.
Selling to this community can be challenging; people’s addresses and phone numbers change frequently, and the majority of customers make purchases irregularly throughout the year depending on income stream and EBT benefits. This makes it hard to establish a consistent market for local farmers who are interested in growing for the community but who can’t invest in production without some assurance of revenue. The conundrum has lead Danny to conclude that the most sustainable way to continue selling low-cost, healthy food to his neighbors is to sell a portion of the produce to high-end restaurants and brokers who can establish a reliable partnership with growers and pay more for produce. This would cover the Peeds’ cost of providing a percentage of that produce at a lower cost to low-income customers.
Danny puts is this way: “If a farmer tells me he has a bushel of sweet potatoes and needs twenty dollars, let’s see if sixty percent of those potatoes [at Grade No. 1] gives us twenty dollars. Then we have forty percent to give away or sell at a lower cost.”
“We have girls around here stealing baby formula. They say: ‘What am I supposed to do if my baby’s crying?’ That’s what we got in these rural areas, and that’s what I’m trying to deal with. I want to sell into the high-end market to allow me to serve the people here”.
Expanding the produce box program will require more equipment, a more diverse market, and greater commitment from local growers. Danny and Jackie believe churches can be a catalyst for this expansion, by connecting Robersonville Packing Company to a new set of regular customers and relieving RPC of some of the administrative duties of customer management. With RPC’s new program, the Community Food Network of Project Farmhouse, the Peeds have offered to compensate a member of a participating church to serve as the “liaison” to RPC. This person would advertise the food boxes to his or her congregation and consolidate and keep track of orders. In addition to its paid liaison, the participating church would also receive 5% of whatever revenue RPC generated from selling to church members.
The Community Food Network is in its pilot year, but the Peeds have been partnering with churches for years to provide low-cost food to congregation members. Danny and Jackie have a tradition of selling $20 meat boxes to churches for $7, on the condition that the church give these boxes at no cost to community members unable to afford groceries. Last August, the Peeds’ church in Greenville gave away RPC meat and produce to 400 people. Danny notes that “you can’t have a healthy church if you don’t have healthy church members”, and he’s optimistic that as churches in the area begin to take physical health as seriously as spiritual health, more people from the faith community will become involved.