Undergraduate research: Farming and feeding Watauga County

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tsFN7O4WsLw[/youtube]They say home is where the heart is. For recent alumna Jessica Kennedy, home is also the subject of her undergraduate research.

With her father active in local government, Kennedy grew up familiar with the social issues of Watauga County — an uncertain transition from an agricultural based economy, hunger and poverty. She applied for and received a SURF grant and dedicated her summer to understanding and addressing these issues in her hometown. Her advisers in the College of Arts and Sciences were Patricia Sawin and Marcie Ferris in the American studies department.

“It’s been an agricultural area for many years, but it’s really changing lately, and that’s what I wanted to look at when I came back,” says Kennedy, who studied journalism and graduated in May. “Where did the agriculture go? What’s taking its place? How are people dealing with food issues?”

To learn more about hunger and food security issues, Kennedy teamed up with Renee Boughman, the executive chef at FARM Cafe in Boone. The FARM Cafe’s mission is to “feed all regardless of means,” and anyone can volunteer there in exchange for a free meal. Boughman says food insecurity is a big problem in Watauga County, but it isn’t always visible. “There are people who come in here – they work, they have a job,” she says. “But this is the one good meal they can get.”

As part of her research project, Kennedy created and distributed a survey for patrons of FARM Cafe. “It allowed us to get some honest feedback about what we were doing,” Boughman says. “We had just gotten up on our feet and that information was crucial for us to build on what was working and pinpoint things to improve.”

To better understand the context and history of the local agriculture, Kennedy established connections with local farmers. She photographed farms and interviewed farmers who had been in the area for decades.

She learned that the decline in agriculture in Watauga County is due in large part to the demise of the federal tobacco program, which began during the New Deal and ended in the early 2000s. Since then, the area’s economy has become more dependent on Appalachian State University and tourism.

While most of the tobacco crops are gone, Kennedy found that the spirit of the farmer continues. “FARM Cafe and other hunger organizations in this area are really returning to the idea that the community is a vital part of a person’s life and welfare,” she says. “It’s all about neighbors caring for neighbors.”

Kennedy received a North Carolina Documentary Photography Award through The North Carolina Collection to photograph the shifting face of agriculture in Watauga County. More photos can be found at Kennedy’s Flickr account.

[ Video and story by Rob Holliday and Mary Lide Parker]