When pandemic shutdowns began last spring, Maggie Cheney, co-owner of Millerton’s Rock Steady Farm & Flowers, was inundated with calls and requests for info. Farmers, whose business models had changed seemingly overnight, and food-access projects, who were suddenly facing exceptional levels of need, were looking for a way to connect. An alum of Glynwood Center for Regional Food and Farming’s incubator program, Cheney initiated weekly calls between the center and the community.
“In those conversations, we were identifying what the barriers were to local producers helping to feed everyone in their communities,” says Megan Larmer, senior director of regional food programs at Glynwood. Though programs existed to help connect farmers and regional food-access points, farms led by BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and women farmers were less likely to benefit from these initiatives. “The people who are usually left out of our food system were at greatest risk of being left out of this well-intentioned work,” explains Larmer. “Those people were also representative of the communities most likely to be heavily impacted by COVID, including being at the highest risk of being food insecure.”
With this knowledge, Glynwood raised funding to contract 10 farms to grow thousands of pounds of vegetables, meat, and dairy for hunger relief in 2020. The program, now called the Food Sovereignty Fund, will formally launch with the 2021 growing season. Currently, Glynwood has raised nearly $110,000 of the $150,000 fundraising goal for its current campaign, which runs through the end of March. We sat down with Larmer to learn a little more about the program.
What is the Food Sovereignty Fund?
The Food Sovereignty Fund pays farmers from historically marginalized and disenfranchised backgrounds to grow food for community-based food-access projects. It was inspired by the work of farmers and food-access projects in the Hudson Valley that mobilized at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic to make sure the wide gap between locally produced food and emergency food programs was not driven even further apart during this time.
Right now, most food-access work relies on excess, the waste of the food system. That not only limits the nutritional quality of the food that people are able to have, but it also impacts on their dignity. There’s very little choice. It limits the ability for that food to be culturally relevant. All of our food-access partners know this. They want to be giving their clients and the communities they work in the food that people want, that brings them quality of life, that brings them health, that brings them joy.
By directly matching farms to food access projects, our goal is that they’ll be able to identify what those foods are. For example, herbs are not something that is going to be provided to food pantries because they don’t keep very long, they’re high-value products, [and] they don’t fit in anywhere on the food pyramid. But those herbs are critical to expressing your culture, to making a meal taste good. We pay [farms] in advance, and that gives agency to the food-access project to have a conversation about what’s going to be grown. We want everyone in our communities to be able to experience the bounty of beautiful foods that are grown in the Hudson Valley.
We are also offering technical assistance. One of the barriers to using farm-fresh produce at a lot of grassroots, community-based organizations is not having cold storage on-site…not having the knowledge of how to store the food once it comes in, or how to display and distribute it. A farm maybe doesn’t know how to package the best way for that provider. That provider doesn’t know how to best communicate what that food is to their clients.
How is the Food Sovereignty Fund different from the state’s Nourish New York initiative?
The difference is the size and scale of the farms we’re working with, and also the people who run those farms. We’re specifically saying we want to work with small-scale, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and women-led farms. Nourish New York isn’t saying they don’t want to work with those farms, but the bureaucratic lift to become eligible for those Nourish New York dollars limits farms that are already very likely to be under-resourced and are not likely to have the administrative skill to jump through some of those hoops.
Another distinction is that Nourish New York is operated through the existing food-access system, so a lot of the smaller, community-based, mutual-aid feeding programs that sprung up during COVID aren’t able to utilize that. And then, Nourish New York can’t pay for food upfront, so they couldn’t contract someone to grow.
Your program is overseen by an Accountability Council. How is that different from a traditional board?
The Accountability Council is made up of people working at the nexus of agriculture and food access. They’re experts and active practitioners in both fields. They are people who identify with the target demographics of the farmers we want to work with. They’ve been involved since the very outset of this program, before it even had a name. The reason we call them an Accountability Council is that they make sure we are formulating and implementing this program in a way that serves those who we hope to serve. If you want to know the answer to a problem, ask the person affected by the problem.
What are some of the challenges you’re facing?
We’ve been so incredibly blown away by the generosity of donors, both individuals and foundations, and by the incredible enthusiasm we’ve seen. As generous as people have been, there’s almost no ceiling to the need for this work. We had hoped to serve up to 15 farms this coming season, [and] to that end, we were hoping to get 20 applicants. We ended up getting 37 applicants, and people are still filling out interest forms. We had hoped to be finished with the selection process by now, but are finding it’s just more complicated than we thought.
You’re trying to raise $150,000. Where will that money go?
The vast majority of the money we are raising in this campaign goes directly to contracts for farmers. Any that does not go to that, goes to technical assistance that helps make this program a success, helping to manage the relationships between farmers and the food-access projects. A small percentage goes to overhead for Glynwood staff.
A program like this would have been helpful even before the pandemic. Now that exists, we assume you want it to continue, even after COVID?
Absolutely. One of the visions for this project is that it could inspire state- or federal-level investment on the scale of Farm to School.
One common term we’ll use to describe the types of organizations we’re working with is “emergency food programs,” but how many decades before we recognize that this is going to be a persistent part of our food system as long as the inequity in our broader social system continues? Food insecurity is not a one-year or two-year crisis in this country. It is a persistent state of our society, and we can solve it.