Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Impoverished rural areas in the South are turning to local food systems to feed the economy

Local food systems are helping feed people and the economy in impoverished rural areas in the South, Susanna Hegner reports for the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation as part of its video Series "Southern Voices." The series of oral histories "documents opportunities, challenges, lessons learned and progress made by our nonprofit grantee partners in the South," states the organization's website.

Last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture "announced $35 million in grants to support local and regional food systems," Hegner writes. "That includes $13.3 million to promote farmers markets and community supported agriculture and $11.9 million to promote food hubs, aggregation centers, local processors and farm-to-institution programs." USDA is also "awarding $8.1 million in grants to enhance SNAP operations at farmers markets so low-income families can access fresh, local food."

"The grants are aimed at boosting market opportunities for small and mid-size producers, stimulating rural economies and improving health," Hegner writes. "Organizations across the South have been putting that theory into practice for years."

The West Virginia Community Development Hub earlier this year "helped the WV Food and Farm Coalition and the WV Farmers Market Association score major local-foods victories in their state legislature: SB 352 allows businesses to structure themselves as co-ops, and SB 304 streamlines the permitting process for farmers market vendors," Hegner writes.

In coastal Georgia, McIntosh SEED opened a farmers market,” said executive director John Littles, Hegner writes. He told her, “We try to open markets for small-scale farmers to be able to sell their produce directly. We work with local restaurants. . . . And on a larger level, we work with folks in Mississippi and Alabama in building value chains and getting small-scale farmers certifications that they may need . . . whatever it takes to get into the market, to sell institutionally so some of our farmers are meeting demand with Walmart, with local school districts, food chains, Sysco and Red Diamond. And it’s changing their economic conditions.”

Hegner writes, "In the persistently poor Black Belt counties of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia, one of the ways the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative generates income for women is through an agricultural network that connects farmers with markets. SRBWI also worked with municipal leaders and community organizations to repurpose an abandoned school into a USDA-certified commercial kitchen for its members." Cofounder Shirley Sherrod told Hegner, “We work with farmers and trying to help women produce food that’s marketed to the school system and through farmers’ markets and other outlets in the area. Many of them are widows who own land and need to derive an income from that land. . . . We have a community foods project, and that’s in 22 counties.”

The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund "helps farmers widen their profit margins through credit unions and the cooperative model," Hegner writes. Former executive director Ralph Paige told her, “We’re talking about creating a form of wealth that people own and control, that would help communities to stabilize. We’re talking about sustainable farming, sustainable communities. Someone will come to us and say, ‘I’ve got three acres of land. Can I make a living off it?’ You won’t get wealthy off it, but you can subsidize your income off it. You can grow produce and sell it to a local farmers market. You can get three or four other people to do it as a co-op; then you don’t have to own a tractor, per se. How do you use this kind of thing to make a difference for yourself in your life and livelihood for your family?” (Read more)

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