The Montgomery County Farm to Community Planning Project (MCFCPP) is a food system assessment that sought to identify opportunities to foster growth in local agriculture in ways that are inclusive to the low-income population. The MCFCPP recruited local stakeholders, including low-income community members, to design and implement food venue, low-income consumer, and producer surveys. Focus groups with consumers and producers further illuminated current access to local produce. In a community forum, 56 participants learned the results and formed working groups to address identified issues. A final report was published and distributed to continue to guide community initiatives.
Montgomery County, Virginia, with a population of 94,932 (US Census, 2010) is located within the Blue Ridge range of the Appalachian Mountains. This is a predominately rural county, with the largest employer being Virginia Tech. Median household income is 35% below the state average and 18% below the national average (US Census, 2010). 22.6% of the population is living below the poverty line, a figure that is 119% above the state average, and 64% above the national average (US Census, 2010). Statistics for households receiving SNAP benefits in Montgomery County indicate a sharp increase in recent years. In July 2012, 3,806 households received a total of $994,724 in SNAP benefits, indicating a 130% increase since 2006 (VA Dept of Social Services). Ten hunger relief agencies, including food pantries, hot food programs, and school backpack programs currently serve an estimated 50,000 persons per year. Although 36% of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, the numbers are much higher in rural areas, and half of the county schools have a rate between 44% and 78% (VA Dept of Education, 2011). These figures are indicative of a less visible population of need that is often overshadowed by the more affluent community of Blacksburg, with the Virginia Tech campus at its center. Many of the schools with a higher free and reduced lunch population are situated in more rural areas of the county. Access to fresh, local produce at outlets such as farmers markets are often limited for those in rural areas by transportation issues. According to the USDA, low-income households have a higher prevalence of health conditions related to poor nutrition than households with higher incomes.
Additionally, Virginia continues to experience a loss of farmland throughout the state. According to VDACS 13,500,000 acres of land were devoted to farming in 1960. This figure shrunk by more than five million acres in 50 years to 8,103,925 in 2007. The primary reason for this loss of farmland is loss of farm income. From 1997 to 2007, Virginia has experienced a significant loss of agriculture of the middle. There has been a 23% decline in farms with annual earnings of between $100,000 and $499,999, a 10% decline in farms earning between $50,000 and $99,999, an 11% decline in farms earning between $10,000 and $24,999, a 24% decline in farms earning between $5,000 and $9,999, and a 33% decline in farms earning between $2,500 and $4,999 (USDA, 2007 Agricultural Census). Within Montgomery County from 2002 to 2007 there was a 3% decrease in the number of farms from 650 to 628 (USDA Census of Agriculture, 2007).
The recent increase in the number and popularity of farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture Programs (CSA’s), community gardens, and other offshoots of the local food movement, has resulted in enhanced availability of fresh, local produce for many communities, and inherently contributed to new opportunities for small- and mid-sized farmers. Unfortunately, several real or perceived barriers have resulted in lower participation among low-income consumers, including a perception that locally-produced food is not affordable (Grace et al., 2005). Friends of the Farmers Market Inc. (FFM), is committed to making a positive community impact by providing an accessible venue for healthy and affordable food (the Blacksburg Farmers Market), educational and outreach programs that connect an ever-widening and diverse audience with local food information, and increased opportunities for local farmers to expand their clientele. FFM has initiated or participated in several projects over the past few years that were designed to increase the participation of low-income consumers, including supporting a food collection program that supplies local food banks with fresh produce and the initiation of an EBT program that allows those who receive federal food benefits through SNAP to receive double-value when they spend their benefits at the Market. These programs have made a valuable impact on the lifestyles of some low-income consumers, and yet the FFM recognizes that they have barely begun to address the overall need. Although the Blacksburg Farmers Market is providing a valuable venue for small-scale, sustainable farmers to connect with a growing consumer base (who are motivated to support the local economy and eat fresh, healthful foods), the sad truth is that we are failing to effectively reach most of the community members (largely rural) who are living below the poverty line.
The Montgomery County Farm to Community Planning Project brought together diverse stakeholders to create a framework for addressing the challenges and opportunities inherent in supporting a local community food system that is accessible to all. This was made possible by engaging those most affected (low-income consumers and farmers) in identifying barriers to participation, and in looking beyond existing venues (such as farmers markets, food banks) to discover new and creative ways to address them. The inclusive involvement of representatives from all affected sub-groups (including low-income consumers and farmers) will increase the capacity of the community to make significant and sustainable changes that result in a more equitable and thriving local food system.
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To create opportunities for low-income residents to be engaged in significant and effective ways in the development of a more equitable, accessible and secure local food system. Ensure that low-income individuals, as well as community organizations who work inclusively with low-income populations, are key participants at all levels of project planning and development.
To increase community understanding about the availability and accessibility of local farm-based foods to low-income residents of Montgomery County. Drawing from existing assessment materials (such as the USDA Food Security Assessment Toolkit, Cohen et al., 2002), develop survey tools and focus group guidelines that are targeted to increasing the knowledge base regarding the consumption of locally –produced foods by low income residents. Conduct a comprehensive study of various subgroups within the low-income population, employing diverse and culturally-sensitive techniques to ensure optimum participation and accurate reporting. Use the survey and focus group results to create a report (including consumption rates, food security issues, barriers to access) that will be valuable to all stakeholders in determining community need and possible first-steps to developing viable and sustainable solutions.
To examine the present and potential capacity of the local food system to meet the needs of those not currently being adequately served, and engage farmer/producers in the development of new marketing relationships that increase their economic viability and extend their reach to low-income populations. Assess the potential economic benefits to local farmer/producers and identify supports which may be needed to assist growth in this area. Engage representatives from the local farming community at all levels of the project to ensure that identified needs and proposed solutions are informed by a good understanding of available resources and potential areas of capacity development.
To facilitate a new dialogue between all community stakeholders that seeks to develop creative solutions to food security challenges, focusing on local food resources. Coordinate one or more Working Groups that are charged with using survey results to generate recommendations for community actions to address identified barriers to local food access for low-income consumers. Plan and conduct a Community Forum to examine best practices in other communities with similar demographics, disseminate survey results and Working Group recommendations, and involve all participating stakeholder representatives in establishing a concrete plan to follow the identified recommendations toward sustainable solutions within the community.
First, a steering committee was formed from low-income community members, community organizations, cooperative extension, and faculty at Virginia Tech. Specific organizations included: Department of Health (WIC), the Department of Social Services, the Interfaith Food Pantry, the Family Nutrition Program, SNAP-Ed, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, VT Engage (student service learning), and Blacksburg United Methodist Church. This group helped guide the design and execution of surveys and focus groups for all target participants (low-income consumers, producers, and food venues).
Second, three methods of data collection gathered input from low-income consumers regarding purchasing practices, opinions relating to agriculture, and barriers to fresh produce. The three methods included an in-person survey, a focus group, and structured interviews. From May 30, 2014, through August 8, 2014, 50 participants at two locations in Montgomery County completed the consumer survey. 21 surveys took place at Fieldstone United Methodist Church’s Giving Tree Food Pantry on 4 separate occasions, while 39 surveys took place at the Montgomery County Department of Social Services and Department of Health over 2 sessions. The surveys took place one-on-one, usually while the participant was either waiting for service at the pantry or for service at the Department of Health/Social Services.
The consumer focus group took place on July 25, 2014 at Fieldstone United Methodist Church during the Giving Tree Food Pantry. Eight participants spoke about barriers to gardening, trends they’ve seen regarding food, and impacts of farmers markets, community gardens, and food business incubators/community kitchens. Last, one structured interview involving 2 participants took place on August 29, 2014 at The Giving Tree Food Pantry at Fieldstone United Methodist Church.
Next, three methods of data collection gathered input from local producers regarding expansion barriers, goals, and opportunities. The three methods included an online survey, a focus group, and structured interviews. From March 5, 2014 until May 13, 2014, 33 producers and food artisans located in the Appalachian region participated in an online survey regarding barriers to expansion and success. The surveys took place online and were distributed via email through previous contacts or relevant producer organizations. Recruitment also took place at the Blacksburg Farmers Market and at agriculture-related forums and events, such as an agritourism forum. The target population were producers participating in the Montgomery County food system, though not necessarily located in Montgomery County. The producer focus group took place on July 12, 2014 at Market Square Park in Blacksburg, VA. Six participants spoke about various barriers to expansion. Last, three structured interviews took place at the Blacksburg Farmers Market on July 25, 2014, with 2 produce vendors and 1 meat vendor.
Further, from November 2013 through March 2014, four volunteers contacted 76 food venues within Montgomery County either by phone or in-person to complete our survey regarding local food availability, interest in local food procurement, and barriers to procuring local food for sale in store. All grocery stores, independent grocery stores, pharmacy grocers, dollar stores, and convenience stores located within Montgomery County were approached. Forty-two total venues, representing all store categories except pharmacy grocers, completed the survey.
Finally, a community forum was held November 21, 2014 at the Montgomery County Government Building at 755 Roanoke Street in Christiansburg, VA. Results of the assessment were presented, salient issues identified, and actionable items determined. From this forum, working groups were formed according to the issues and items determined. These groups will work toward finding meaningful and inclusive solutions to the problems illuminated by this research.
Much was learned from the assessment. From the consumer end, an in-person survey of fifty low-income consumers indicated that the vast majority buy fresh produce through mainstream food venues, such as chain grocery stores. Although convenience was listed as the number one reason why they shopped there, quality came in second. They care about the condition of their produce. Additionally, nearly three-quarters of participants agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I know how to grow my own food,” reflecting the agricultural heritage of the sample and of the region. However, focus groups revealed that the reason why so few survey participants gardened at home was because of rental situations and prohibitions from landlords. The vast majority of those surveyed believed having a community garden and/or farmers market in their neighborhood would result in them eating healthier. Finally, while sixteen percent were interested in starting their own food-based businesses, most people believed that a food business incubator and community kitchen would be beneficial to their community.
From the producer side of the food system, expansion is on the minds of area producers. Seventy-six percent of those surveyed desired to expand their operations, focusing on direct, restaurant, and then institutional buyers. Those producers cited land and labor access, transport cost or type, and marketing as top barriers to doing so. Training programs regarding business planning, lending and grants, and marketing were listed as needs. During focus groups and interviews, an aggregation and distribution hub was commonly suggested, as producers were also keenly aware of the major barrier cited by local food stores and restaurants in selling local produce: communication between buyers and producers. Independent grocery stores were found to be the current option for producers, though large chain groceries were not opposed to selling local, but extremely concerned with keeping up with demand and organizing logistics between individual producers.
The information gathered through the surveys, focus groups, and structured interviews is already helping to guide local food initiatives in the region. A final report on the project (attached to this final submission) was distributed to the Appalachian Virginia Food System Council, the Prices Fork Food Project, Blacksburg Town Council, The New River Valley Planning District Commission, as well as other area organizations. It has added tremendous momentum and evidence-based support to regional food system endeavors.
Educational & Outreach Activities
This report was presented to a community forum of 56 stakeholders, including farmers, low-income community members, community organization representatives, Virginia Tech faculty, and Virginia Tech students. During this forum, the most salient issues were identified and used to guide the formation of working groups, which will continue to work on potential solutions also identified.
Now that low-income consumer barriers have been illuminated, projects and initiatives can be better tailored to their needs in order to improve access. Long term projects include a community kitchen and incentives for landowners to start community gardens. Many other ideas were discussed during the forum and focus groups and will likely develop further through the working groups. In regards to producers, their needs relating to scale, finance, distribution, and communication are now clear. This will help guide potential projects, such as a food hub or processing center, which are a likely outcome of the Prices Fork Food Project.
Altogether, this project has contributed significantly to the momentum around local agriculture in Montgomery County. First, through an inclusive steering committee and diverse community forum, we were able to bring together multiple stakeholders. These stakeholders have formed a network, recognizing their similar goals of access and scale. Next, we were able to gather critical information regarding barriers for consumers and producers. However, most importantly, we went a step further and channeled that knowledge and enthusiasm through a community forum, which resulted in the formation of several working groups. These groups will continue to pursue the development of a more resilient, inclusive local food system through informed initiatives.
We can conclude from this assessment and forum that the primary means of linking low-income consumers and local-producers is currently through mainstream food venues. However, the producers in the area are finding barriers to scaling up and to communicating with buyers. A food hub or farmer cooperative may ameliorate these issues of scale and marketing. Community gardens would be welcomed by residents and may help to increase the amount of produce consumed and foster entrepreneurship around agriculture that is already a part of the region’s heritage. A food business incubator may help to channel this in ways that will encourage creativity and collaboration between producers, entrepreneurs, and food venues.
The information obtained and networks created during the course of this project have been utilized to inform an additional project, the Prices Fork Food Project. Taylor Hollow Construction, a developer and renovator of historic structures, has offered substantial space in the old Prices Fork Elementary School, which is located within the county. Combined with further market- and community-based participatory research completed by its advisory team, the Price Fork Food Project will seek to establish a local food initiative that serves local producers and low-income consumers in novel ways.