Final report for FNC20-1220
Soul Food project and farm has been operating since 2017, and was formally incorporated into a 501c3 nonprofit in August of 2019. The operation is currently utilizing 2,075 out of 4,875 square feet of growing space. The goal is to utilize the remaining space in our 2021 season. The farm uses organic practices, including biointensive farming and no-till. The farm has always tried to be sustainable by utilizing the above mentioned practices, as well as compost, cover crops, and crop rotation. This year the farm grew the following crops: slicing tomatoes, acorn squash, zucchini, yellow squash, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, Swiss chard, eggplant, bell peppers, hot peppers, sweet peppers, sweet potatoes, collards, broccoli, bok choy, watermelon, onions, garlic, green beans, lettuce mix, mustard greens, radish, beets, and carrots.
The Northeast side of Indianapolis has been a food desert for over 20 years only just receiving a small grocery store in 2016. Many residents still rely on fast food establishments or take the bus to the nearest grocery store which is a 30 minute trip. While economic viability for my operation is important, I want to be as socially responsible as possible and my focus is on improving the quality of life for the community that I operate in.
To solve this problem we want to try two different direct marketing solutions: a subsidized community supported agriculture (CSA) program and a farmer’s market. We will trial 10 CSA shares with a sliding fee scale, with shares being as low as $10. We will also guide the community in planning a biweekly farmers market in order to help strengthen the local economy and support other community members that we can’t serve with the CSA. We chose these two options because a CSA can take away the uncertainty of picking out fresh produce while a farmers market gives us the opportunity to educate a wider audience.
Our first step was to create a community survey that got neighbors' opinions on veggie boxes and farmers' markets. The goal was to learn what types of vegetables they would like to receive and if they would like to see a market in their neighborhood. Due to the pandemic, we had to conduct the survey entirely online. What we didn't know is that several other organizations that were larger than us were also conducting similar surveys and ours got lost in the shuffle. We decided to continue with the project and made the choice not to try to launch a brand new farmer's market in the summer.
The first season of 2020, we had two veggie box shares a full share ($90) and a half share ($45). The full share was designed to feed between 2-4 people while the half share was designed for 1-2 people. Each share lasted for the same 12 weeks, June through September. We had 2 families purchase a full share and 9 purchase a half share. This was a promising start and many lessons were learned. The major one being that we didn't grow a diverse amount of crops. Our typical farm crops did well if we were selling at a farmer's market but there wasn't enough variety for our members and they were getting the same thing each week. This caused us to reach out to other farmers throughout the season to try to add some variety to the bags. Another issue we had was that many of the participants weren't from the neighborhood and we priced it so low to help the neighborhood. Many of the participants could afford a higher cost share but chose ours to save money.
To try to solve these problems for our second year, we ran targeted ads on Facebook for our neighborhood and posted about the boxes in the Nextdoor app, and local neighborhood groups on Facebook. This came with success and we even had one neighbor walk to the farm each week to pick up her share. We also raised the price to $150 a share and only offered one size but offered some variety. Here is a copy of the text from our website describing our boxes:
Our share pickup is set up like a farmer’s market. You pick up your vegetables according to a weekly list with approximately 8-12 choices. Your options will consist of a variety of vegetables and herbs sustainably grown on our farm and will change on a weekly basis.
"One share will generally supply a family of 2-4 for a week (depending on a family’s weekly vegetable intake). Each week members receive a box of produce that will regularly include what we like to call “the base of the box:”
1) Two bunches of Swiss chard/kale/collards
2) Fresh herbs.
In addition to the weekly “base,” you will receive seasonal herbs and vegetables including basil, beets, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, cucumber, eggplant, beans, mustards, green onions, hot peppers, potatoes, radishes, squash, cherry tomatoes, turnips, zucchini and more!"
This allowed us to harvest everything consistently and allow the participants to shop. It reduced the labor of having to pack the boxes each week and allowed other tasks to be done. We had 11 participants signed up for the season. They received a newsletter that told them what would be on the table each week and also recipes that they could make with the produce. At the end of the season, they received a survey but many preferred to give their comments face to face when they picked up their final box. The general consensus was that they loved it but still would have liked more of the root crops.
The farmer's market still did not happen in 2021 but we did participate in a farmer's market that was launched less than 2 miles from our farm. While close to our neighborhood, it was still in a more affluent neighborhood and wasn't our target customer base. We do vend there every week but our product mix does not do as well as it could if it was in our neighborhood. We will be convening a neighborhood committee together during the fall of 2021 to launch a farmer's market in the summer of 2022.
The biggest lesson learned in all of this research is the importance of community engagement. We are still meeting people who are unaware of our farm and what we are doing. This fall we will be doing a lot of work in building up our website, social media and maintaining our presence in the community by attending as many community events as possible.
Survey 50 households with the community needs food security assessment.
Establish a 12 week CSA program that serves 10 families between June and September.
Host 2 nutrition/cooking workshops to educate families.
We will start by conducting a survey with residents. The goal is to get a minimum of 50 households to complete the survey. This survey will measure interest in a farmer’s market or a veggie box subscription program (CSA). The survey will also ask residents what vegetables they would like to purchase if given the option. We will conduct this survey over 2 months in order to use that data to plan our season. The goal for this portion is to have conversations with residents that will allow us to develop relationships with them. The survey will be conducted in various venues: the local YMCA, neighborhood association meetings, churches, and local community centers. The survey will also be hosted online. This will allow us to have a greater reach.
While we are conducting the survey, Danielle, the farmer, will be working with neighborhood residents in recruiting youth workers to work alongside her during the season. The youth will train on Saturdays during the school year and in the summer they will increase their work to all week. By May, we will have everything in place to run the CSA. There is already a bimonthly (every other month) farmers market in place in the neighborhood so we will be exploring if that can be expanded into a monthly market. The youth will also host pop-up markets in the summer to help increase reach.
CSA members in our zip code will have options for delivery and subsidized shares while residents outside of our neighborhood will only be offered full price shares. We will plan for 10 shares each week and reach out to farmers in order to advertise the contents of shares. We will take orders up until 48 hours before pick up day/delivery day. There will also be an option for an egg share.
A resource we found helpful as we set up Soul Food Project’s CSA program was Soul Fire Farm’s “Sowing the Seeds of Justice Food Manual,” which is available on the SARE website at https://projects.sare.org/information-product/sowing-the-seeds-of-justice-food-manual/.
Due to COVID-19, our survey was completely online and that proved disastrous to our efforts. While we posted it to several neighborhood groups on Facebook and it was shared over 10 times by different community leaders, we received 0 responses. We believe because we are still an unknown entity outside of our customer base.
The promotion of our veggie box program gave us different results. People jumped at the opportunity to be in the program. By the launch date, we had 8 participants in our program, 2 full shares, 6 half shares. As of July 31, 2020, we had distributed 170 lbs. of vegetables. By mid-July, the program was serving 11 families.
For the summer of 2021, the program was modified in a way. The cost was raised to $150 a share and there was not an option for a full share or half share. This decision was made because it was a little too complicated for one person to manage the different options for each pickup. This price worked and there were 11 shares sold but they were all new customers. It seems as if we priced out our existing customers. Though there were more residents from the neighborhood who joined this time around. This is the posting that we used on our Instagram and other social media posts.
We also created a newsletter that was sent out each week to participants. The newsletter told them what they would be receiving and also gave them some recipes that they could try. A copy of the newsletter is attached to this report as well (Veggie Box Week #5). An end of the season survey (Survey) was sent out to participants as well and we are still waiting results.
The farmers market was not launched due to COVID-19 but there are plans in place to launch the market for the summer of 2022. The first meetings will be held in September 2021 to beginning the planning of the market. Our farm did participate/assist in launching a new summer market in 2021 in a neighborhood close to ours as well.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Due to COVID-19, I have mainly been using social media to tell others about the work that Soul Food Project is doing. Instagram and Facebook have been used frequently to post about the program and to give the community a glimpse into the operation. The farm regularly posts on TikTok, Instagram and Facebook about what is going on at the farm. A weekly newsletter went out to the participants of the veggie box program that included updates on the farm and recipes that they could use.
The biggest way that information was shared was through word of mouth. When I spoke to fellow farmers, I explained the project and what I was doing. They gave me tips on what I could do to improve and encouraged me.
To further communicate my results, I am working on a workshop that I can host at the Indiana Small Farmers workshop but I would like another season of running the program to get more data behind it.
The biggest lesson learned from this grant had to do with marketing to the correct audience. The low cost of the share attracted people outside of the neighborhood who were more affluent and could afford to pay full price.