In January 2017, Laura Lee joined the EDPNC to fill a new position focused on recruiting food and beverage manufacturing operations, particularly value-added processors using local crops in their final product.
“We grow over 80 commodities, and a large percentage of what is grown in North Carolina is shipped out of the state to be further processed,” Lee said. “We have a tremendous opportunity to further process more of what is grown throughout North Carolina.”
In 2014, a state-commissioned study summarized the economic promise of expanding food processing in the state. If the state took certain steps to “catalyze” growth in food and beverage processing, according to the study, North Carolina could create 38,000 jobs and boost the state’s economic output by $10.3 billion annually by 2020. A statewide food manufacturing task force that convened after the study issued several recommendations, including creating Lee’s food-industry focused recruiting position.
Lee’s work includes proactively identifying and cultivating leads among domestic and foreign food processors considering new U.S. operations. Her tactics include promoting the state’s assets at industry events, meeting with food-focused site consultants, and connecting with companies that may require East Coast-based facilities.
She works closely with partners such as the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and North Carolina State University. In fact, she is currently providing marketing support to the new North Carolina Food Innovation Lab opening in 2019 at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis.
The NC State facility’s labs will enable a company to develop plant-based food concepts and test products before scaling up. It will help both startups and established companies more rapidly launch new products.
“It will also give us another strong recruiting tool as we stress North Carolina, which is already recognized in meat processing, wants to be on the cusp of new product research and development within plant-based food,” Lee said.
One overriding goal inspires Lee’s work. “Our vision for food manufacturing within North Carolina is to lead the nation in value-added food and beverage production,” she said.