By Ashley See, CFSA Communications Coordinator & Firsthand Foods| Thursday, Mar. 7, 2019 –

How do three masters degrees, two mothers, and 30 family farms add up?

Firsthand Foods co-founders and co-CEOS, Jennifer and Tina visiting a farm

In honor of women’s history month, we’re shining the light on the co-founders and co-CEOs of Firsthand Foods, Jennifer Curtis and Tina Prevatte Levy.

While we’ve written about how this women-owned, Durham-based business works, what we haven’t explored is how this dynamic duo came to owning and running a specialized meat business that works with local farmers and processors to allow meats to be in the hands of consumers within a few days of processing.

So let’s take a closer look.

Jennifer Curtis of Firsthand FoodsFirst up is Jennifer Curtis who grew up in a family that valued gardening, cooking, and wilderness exploration. Jennifer’s academic background is in public health, including a masters from UNC’s School of Public Health.

After college, she put her passion to work all over the country, starting on sustainable agriculture issues at the San Francisco office of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Working with farmers inspired Jennifer to start a consulting business that worked with organizations like World Wildlife Fund and Gerber to build bridges between farmers and environmentalists.

In Wisconsin she helped create on-farm habitat for sandhill cranes; in Florida, she helped cattle ranchers protect the Everglades; she worked with sweet potato growers in Louisiana on ecological approaches to pest management.

After moving to Carrboro in 1996, just two weeks after Hurricane Fran, she learned about hog production in Eastern NC. At the time she thought, “Someday, I want to work on a project that addresses sustainability in hog farming.” Ten years later, she met the amazing folks at Central Environmental Food Systems who needed a director for NC Choices – a project designed to help small-scale, pasture-based livestock producers learn how to sell their own meats.

This project was the lightbulb that would one day become Firsthand Foods, but only after Jennifer met her business partner Tina.

Tina Prevatte Levy of Firsthand FoodsTina Prevatte Levy, a North Carolina native who trained as an environmental engineer at UC Berkeley. Tina knew early on that she wanted to do work that would change the world by improving water and air quality and reducing the human impact on the environment.
Out of undergrad, Tina worked for the EPA enforcing the Clean Air Act. She found violators and teamed up with an attorney to fine and force them to remediate their practices. It was very much a “stick” approach to changing behavior, and Tina wondered what a “carrot” approach would look like. She wanted to talk to VPs of refineries and power plants in their own language, to get them to see that doing the right thing for the environment was ultimately a better business decision.
This drive ultimately led her to UNC’s Kenan Flagler Business School (in addition to an MBA, Tina pursued a Masters in City & Regional Planning with a focus on Economic Development as a way to understand what rural economic development looked like in her home state).
In many ways, NC’s economy was booming, but the rural economies were being left out of that growth. Tina wanted to be a part of changing that.
The summer before Tina’s last year of grad school, she met Jennifer and learned about this vision for a business that would connect sustainable livestock producers and processors in rural communities to more urban markets in the Triangle. Tina knew this was the perfect blend of her interests: Using business as a tool to achieve sustainable rural economic development through collaborative, meaningful, place-based solutions.

Or in their own words:

“We first connected as business owners around a shared passion for using business as a tool for generating social and environmental good. We’re also moms, whose kids love to eat meat.

“When we met eight years ago, we were disheartened by the lack of local, sustainably-produced proteins available where we like to eat and shop. So we rallied around that problem and today you can find our meats at numerous area restaurants and natural foods grocery stores in the Triangle and Triad, as well as being offered by multiple home delivery services.”

Not all CFSA members are farmer-members. CFSA’s membership base also consists of gardeners, consumers, and businesses just like Firsthand Foods. There’s room for everyone at the table. Want to pull up a chair?