The purpose of this project was to identify and elucidate best practices for farmers seeking to reach low-income consumers and communities. To this end, we conducted extensive research within low-income food access literature, within our own community and through fellow farmers who are also serving low-income communities. Over the course of 2017, we participated in 9 neighborhood association meetings in communities that struggle with low food access, which allowed us to listen to and learn from the experiences of over 130 community members. We additionally surveyed all 80 members of our 2017 CSA as well as 8 farmers who are currently serving low-income consumers.
We found from this research that there are no comprehensive guides or best practices for farmers on how to provide food for low-income consumers with a financially viable model. We learned from community members and our CSA participants that the largest barriers to food access for low-income consumers are food costs, lack of transportation and lack of accessible markets selling local, fresh or nutritious food. Through research, interviews with farmers and our own experimentation, we learned that farmers can overcome these barriers through a variety of strategies including community and nonprofit partnerships, government grant and subsidy programs, community outreach and relationship building, accessible distribution approaches like neighborhood markets and doorstep delivery and collaboration with other farmers through food hubs or farmer’s markets.
Over the course of 2017, we shared preliminary results with 500 farmers through a combination of farm trainings, consultations, tours and public events. Since publishing the manual in early February 2018 and distributing it to thousands of people through our farmer networks and through social media, we have thus far been in contact with 10 farmers who have learned about specific changes they could take from the manual and plan to implement these best practices in the coming season. We have 5 events this spring that are specifically aimed at distributing the findings of the manual to more farmers and have incorporated the findings into our training curriculum that will be used to train over 200 farmers in 2018.
The incoming generation of farmers is overwhelmingly inclined toward social and environmental justice. Over the past 6 years we have given lectures and workshops to 1000’s of farmers and have heard time and again, “How can we as farmers contribute to economic and social justice?” Just this month, 40 farmers from the Hudson Valley Young Farmers Coalition came to Soul Fire Farm for a workshop on food justice. The farmers in our area including Abode Farm, Denison Farm, Hudson Valley Farm Hub, and Laughing Earth contacted us this season to ask how we make our low income CSA shares financially viable.
As much as farmers want to help the community, the community wants our help. About 50 million Americans are food insecure, with half of those individuals living in food deserts, where it’s difficult or impossible to access affordable, healthy food. This lack of access to life-giving food has dire consequences for our communities. The incidence of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease are on the rise in all populations, but the greatest increases have occurred among people of color, especially African-Americans and Native Americans. These illnesses are fueled by diets high in unhealthy fats, cholesterol, and refined sugars, and low in fresh fruits, vegetables, and legumes. In our communities children are being raised on processed foods, and now over one-third of children are overweight or obese, a fourfold increase over the past 30 years. This puts the next generation at risk for lifelong chronic health conditions, including several types of cancer.
The farm team at Soul Fire Farm is recognized nationally as a leader in food justice – getting fresh food and farming opportunities to those who are usually left out. In, 2017, we intend to refine our five strategies (1) accepting SNAP and government benefits (2) sliding scale CSA (3) institutional partnerships (4) neighborhood organizing (5) social justice marketing. With the support of our technical advisor at Corbin Hill Farm and Food Project, an expert in marketing to vulnerable populations, we will consolidate our strategies into a “how to” manual for other sustainable growers. Our host organization offers training programs for hundreds of farmers annually and will make use of the results as well. After years of practice, we are ready to refine our model and share it with the wider farming community. We seek to communicate to other farmers that it is possible to have a viable business while at the same time sharing affordable food with those who are most in need.
This project directly ties to three of the sustainability criteria (1) increase of net farm income (2) enhancement of employment in agriculture (3) improvement in quality of life for farmers and the community.
Goal: To test and refine Soul Fire Farm’s marketing strategies for getting fresh food to low income families, while maintaining a financially viable farm business, and to share these strategies with other farmers through an online manual and on-farm training programs reaching 200+ farmers.
Research Question: How can farmers increase revenues while working with low-income customers?
(1) We will survey our customers to determines the effectiveness of our sliding scale CSA share and social justice marketing and make modifications in the 2017 season.
(2) We will conduct listening and sharing sessions in low income neighborhoods to uncover barriers to fresh food access and let people know how to attain affordable farm products.
(3) In addition to SNAP, we will research and implement sensible government benefits programs on our farm (WIC, FMNP, FINI).
(4) We will enhance our institutional partnerships with nonprofits and agencies who directly serve vulnerable populations and market wholesale share boxes.
(5) We will document the results of 1-5 in a manual that highlights best practices for marketing to low income people. We will publish the manual for free online to our 6000 followers and teach the content in our training programs that reach 200+ farmers annually.
Groundwork: We met with our technical advisor and complete the literature review to refine the research plan
In the beginning of 2017, we worked with our technical advisor, Dennis Derryck from Corbin Hill Farm Project to finalize our research plan. Dennis particularly helped us conceptualize frameworks for low-income CSAs and consulted for us on how to best leverage institutional partnerships. We concurrently completed our literature review, which showed that there are limited resources for farmers who are trying to reach low-income consumers.
Task 1: We surveyed our customers to determine the effectiveness of our sliding scale CSA share and social justice marketing and make modifications in the 2017 season.
In March of 2017, we completed a comprehensive survey of 2016 CSA members. We gathered demographic data as well as constructive feedback on how we were serving the members of our CSA. The survey was conducted both electronically through a online survey as well as through in-person interviews. Questions included:
- What effects has your participation in the Farm Share CSA had in your household? (Choose between Yes / No / Depends on month or season / Not sure / Not applicable)
- There is more food in my house
- I and/or my household eat more fruits and vegetables overall
- I and/or my household save money on food
- I and/or my household have changed my/our eating habits
- I and/or household cook more often or have improved my/our cooking skills
- I would not be able to afford the kind of food in the CSA (local, sustainably grown) if I could not pay with my food benefits – EBT or SNAP and/or use payment plan
- How easy or difficult would you say it is to buy fresh fruits and vegetables in your neighborhood (not including the Farm Share CSA)?
- Please tell us about any challenges you may have experienced with the Farm Share CSA and any suggestions you have for how we can address them.
- Do you use SNAP/EBT to pay for the Farm Share CSA?
- If you have SNAP/EBT but do *not* use it to pay for your Farm Share CSA, what would make it possible for you to use your benefits to purchase a share?
Task 2: We will conduct listening and sharing sessions in low income neighborhoods to uncover barriers to fresh food access and let people know how to attain affordable farm products.
From February through April 2017, we attended numerous community meetings in food desert neighborhoods. Specifically, we attended the neighborhood association meetings in Arbor Hill, West Hill, South End, Mansion, North Troy and South Troy neighborhoods where we spoke to residents about obstacles in accessing fresh and healthy food. We similarly attended community meetings hosted by the grassroots organization AVillage in Albany, by the main branch of the Albany Public Library and by the AME Church in Center Square. Through these meetings we engaged with over 130 community members. In each of the meetings, we engaged in a free flowing discussion based on the following questions:
- What are the barriers between you and healthy food? What are some supports that work to connect you to healthy food?
- What are your ideas to solve the high rates of obesity, diabetes, etc. in the community?
- What is your relationship to land? Do you have goals to be connected to nature?
- How can Soul Fire Farm better support this community?
Task 3: In addition to SNAP, we will research and implement sensible government benefits programs on our farm (WIC, FMNP, FINI).
During March and April of 2017, we began researching additional government benefits programs beyond SNAP. As a result of this research we signed up for Farmers Market Coupon but never actually used the program because we only participated in one farmer’s market in which the program was not applicable. We specifically looked at the Women, Infants and Children Program (WIC), the WIC Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program (FMNP), the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Grant Program (FINI), the Community Food Project Competitive Grants Program (CFP), The federal Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP), the USDA’s Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP). While many of these programs were not directly relevant to our model, we researched the parameters for each of these programs to include in the manual.
Task 4: We will enhance our institutional partnerships with nonprofits and agencies who directly serve vulnerable populations and market wholesale share boxes.
Throughout the growing season, from May to November 2017, we worked with several institutional and organizational partners. We collaborated in the beginning of the season with the Community Care Physicians Network to offer our first solidarity shares in the CSA. Solidarity shares are fully subsidized for the CSA member. The Community Care Physicians Network worked with us to identify and do outreach with the 13 families who received solidarity shares. All recipients were refugee families who were at risk for diabetes. We also worked with the nonprofit Unity House, who distributed our produce through their food pantry and the nonprofit Victory Bus Project, who distributed our produce in regional prisons.
Task 5: We will document the results of 1-5 in a manual that highlights best practices for marketing to low income people. We will publish the manual for free online to our 6000 followers and teach the content in our training programs that reach 200+ farmers annually.
We completed the manual in early February 2018 and shared it through our social media and farmer networks. In addition to community listening and research of relevant literature and programs, we also included 3 case studies from Rock Steady Farm, Mass in Motion New Bedford and Food Bank of Delaware CSA program as well as including numerous examples of farms that are already implementing the best practices we elucidate. Over the year, we plan to share the findings at numerous public talks as well as in our consultations and trainings. We have incorporated the findings from the manual into our training curriculum, which will be used to train over 200 farmers this season.
Groundwork: Survey of existing low-income CSAs
Although several organizations have addressed certain aspects of the issue, including innovative payment methods, government programs like SNAP, models for low income farmer’s markets and fundraising practices, many of these resources rely on individual case studies rather than present a model for replication. The literature review found that there were no resources that specifically addressed farmers who want to market directly to low income customers.
Task 1: CSA member interviews
We learned from the feedback provided in these surveys that during multiple weeks members felt overburdened by the volume of food or by unfamiliar produce and that the CSA pickup was inconvenient. In response to this feedback, we reduced the number of items in many weeks during the 2017 season and added more culturally relevant vegetables like watermelon, okra and aji dulce peppers.
Task 2: Community Listening
We learned from these discussions that for the residents of these neighborhoods the primary barriers to maintaining a healthy diet are transportation and cost. Many residents in low-income neighborhoods do not have private transportation and traveling to a grocery store can take so much time through public transportation that it becomes prohibitive. Similarly, many local food distribution centers like farmer’s markets are not located in these neighborhoods and when they are accessible are often too expensive to afford. Residents also spoke about an amorphous feeling that healthy food “isn’t for them” in that it is associated with white and / or rich communities. We further processed with residents that this mentality stems from an internalized lack of self-worth which manifests through unhealthy diet. The practice of maintaining a healthy diet therefore goes beyond logistical or financial access and includes a self-reflective element of self-validation and appreciation.
For farmers, these insights from the community highlight the importance of accessibility for low-income consumers. Farmers serving these communities need to prioritize distributing in locations that are easily accessible by the community, such as neighborhood CSA pick up points or doorstep delivery. Accessibility also includes community outreach and making information about farmer’s products available and relatable to the people in the community. Most importantly, we learned the value of maintaining an ongoing relationship to the communities that we feed, whether it’s through social media, newsletters, community events, on-farm workdays or youth programs.
Task 3: Government Programs
We identified the following government programs and which farming models they best suit. Although many of these programs are not applicable to Soul Fire’s distribution model and therefore we were unable to try them directly, we collected numerous case studies and examples of different farms that are using these programs to sell food in low-income communities.
- Women, Infants and Children Program (WIC) – varying by state, this program can support farmer’s markets, farm stores and CSA who are providing certain food items such as vegetables and milk to mothers with children under the age of 5.
- WIC Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program (FMNP)- provides additional benefits for WIC participants at farmer’s markets.
- Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Grant Program (FINI) – supports projects that incentivize fruit and vegetable consumption by SNAP participants, generally at points of purchase that are collaborative and bring together multiple organizations and community stakeholders, such as farmer’s markets. Often used by farmer’s markets to offer matching incentives to SNAP customers that double the value of their SNAP benefits.
- Community Food Project Competitive Grants Program (CFP)- supports projects that provide low-income community with food access and and foster self-reliance. This program is generally awarded to nonprofits and community organizations that partner with farmers.
- Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP)- funds initiatives that promote and market food producers to the general public, prioritizing outreach to low-income consumers and requiring multiple farmers to benefit from the grant.
- USDA’s Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP) – provides support for expanding market opportunities for farmers through farmer’s markets, CSAs or a variety of other distribution models.
Task 4: Institutional partnerships
We found that partnering with other institutions like nonprofits and community organizations was highly effective for expanding our reach. For example, our partnership with the Community Care Physicians Network gave us the opportunity to create an entirely new bracket for our CSA and identify families that would be best served by a fully subsidized solidarity share. We similarly learned about the value of working with the following partners:
- Social service agencies, who can engage valuable community relationships to connect farmers to low-income consumers and may have additional funding to subsidize food costs.
- Other community institutions such as food pantries, houses of worship, and community activist organizations can similarly help farmers develop a local base of food recipients for a CSA in addition to gaining access to funding and resources limited to non-profit organizations with a 501(c)(3) tax exempt status.
- Other farmers through a food hub model which increases efficiency for all participating farmers and decreases barriers like transportation and distribution challenges.
- Doctors, hospitals, elder homes and health non-profits who are actively working to improve the diet of their patients and communities.
Our motive in this project was to meet a currently unaddressed gap in the capacity of farms to run viable low-income CSAs. In developing the manual that will share best practices with other farmers, we also sought to optimize our own low-income CSA through direct communication with CSA members and the communities that we feed. To this aim we conducted an extensive literature review to confirm that there is a lack of resources on running direct market low-income CSAs as well as thorough surveying, interviewing and listening with CSA members and residents in low-income communities. In addition, we worked to expand our reach and accessibilty through using government support programs and partnering with nonprofit and community organizations.
Through the information gathering we were able to better understand the needs of our community, particularly around obstacles posed by transportation and cost. We were then able to address these challenges in our 2017 survey. Similarly, we were able to work with institutional partners to increase the reach of our CSA and food access distribution and use the SNAP benefits to offset the direct cost to qualifying CSA members. As a result, we increased the number of families in our CSA by 20 members, 13 of which received an entirely subsidized solidarity CSA share. We anticipate that in 2018 we will be able to increase our CSA size by an additional 20 members.
We feel confident that this manual contains best practices that are practical and feasible for farmers to implement in order to increase their low-income consumer base. The information presented in the manual was not succinct or easily accessible available to farmers before this project. As such, we expect that the distribution of the manual will encourage more farmers to reach out to low-income communities and thereby increase food access in these communities.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
While the manual was being developed, we shared preliminary results to the 80 farmer-activists that we trained during our Black and Latinx Farming Immersion training. We also shared some of our findings and guidelines informally with a local farm called Laughing Earth and partner farm Rock Steady. Over the course of the season, we similarly incorporated data and findings into our other training curriculum and in our public speaking events. We shared final results at the following events:
- 9/10/17: 55 representatives from the Hudson Valley Young Farmers’ Coalition
- 11/10/17: Black Urban Growers and Farmers Conference
- 11/14/17: Hidden Acres Farm Conference
- 12/1/17: Clark University
- 12/5/17: New York State Health Department
- 1/27/18: Green Thumb NYC
- 1/30/18: Union College
- 2/8/18: Smith College
- 2/8/18: Amherst College
- 2/23/18: Chicago Food Policy Council Annual Conference
We published the manual on February 8th, 2018 and immediately shared it widely among our farmer networks and on social media. The manual was shared to over 7,000 followers on Facebook and 6,500 on Instagram, where it received over 450 likes. We publicized the manual through our February “Love Notes” newsletter and are continuing to share the manual with farmers who reach out to us for advice and best practices.
Farmers have reported benefitting from numerous findings in the manual. For example, some farmers were introduced to the feasibility of a sliding scale CSA where members pay the same percentage of their income and low-income members’ shares are offset by higher income members and /or government programs such as SNAP, WIC and FINI. They also learned to think beyond the traditional CSA model where all members pay their share upfront at the beginning of the season and which excludes potential members who do not have the financial capacity to pay a large lump sum at one time. Instead, the many case studies and examples in the manual show how farmers can seek external funding or loans to cover their upfront costs and then work with low income members to establish a weekly payment plan that is feasible for everyone.
Farmers who have engaged with the manual have also learned to think more critically about how accessible their food is to low income consumers. This includes examining the transportation challenges many low-income members may face and adopting distribution models like doorstep delivery, neighborhood CSA pick up points and third party distribution through community organizations. Another side of accessibility involves the actual food that is being grown and delivered. Farmers learned from the manual the importance of having personal relationships with their members and thereby knowing what foods are most culturally relevant and enticing to their members.
We learned from several farmers that they further appreciated the emphasis in the manual that was placed on community partnerships and relationships. Although all farmers engage in marketing, much fewer make the extra effort to meet potential members where they live – engaging them in their schools, neighborhood organizations and places of worship. Farmers learned from the manual that this element of community outreach is essential in both connecting to potential members in low-income communities and listening and receiving feedback from those communities on how to best meet their needs. Furthermore, the manual introduced several farmers to the deep potential that lies in partnering with community organizations like social service providers and non-profit organizations. While these organizations may not work directly within agriculture and food justice, the manual illustrated for these farmers how community organizations can introduce farmers to entirely new markets and members, leverage their position in the community and their resources to subsidize low-income CSA shares and even provide support to locate additional funding.
Many of the findings we learned from this project have already resulted in meaningful changes on the farm. We were thrilled to expand our CSA size this year as a result of community outreach related to this project and through our new fully subsidized solidarity share that was formed through a community partnership. This project also led us to grow more culturally centered foods, which brought much joy to both our team and our community, and culminated in a bumper watermelon harvest that provided us with weeks of delicious, lip-smacking watermelon.
Our community often reached out with beautiful and heartwarming stories of how particular produce had been the highlight of their week, taught their kids to enjoy vegetables or reconnected them to culinary traditions. Our solidarity shares were immensely successful in linking us to new families who are low-income and marginalized as recent immigrants and refugees and struggle with diet-related illness. Below are quotes from some of our solidarity share members on their participation in the CSA:
- “Finding time going to the grocery store with my 4 kids can get chaotic. It’s really chaotic. We love this program. I feel blessed. My kids love the little watermelon. The quality was amazing. It was like a surprise box every week. I would open it and be like Yesss! We’re gonna eat this this week and I’m going to stretch it and make it work. I will use every little bit.”
- “I don’t own a vehicle and my mobility is limited. So you know I got to arrange a ride. And sometimes the prices of things be so high. I never smelled basil so fresh ever in my life, I was like why is everybody so crazy about basil, then I was like OMG this is BASIL! I want to learn how to make pesto now.”
- “Really fresh. Sometimes we are not able to get vegetables from the shop. We can’t afford them. Usually I have to drive too far for vegetables and only cabbage I could afford. I went one time to the farmer’s market. One day I just went to try it. It was too expensive and then I didn’t go again. The vegetables from the farm are amazing and we love it.”
- “The vegetables are organic and better. We would not be able to have them. We give the extra vegetables to our neighbor and that helps them too.”
- “Since we started getting the box, we are eating more vegetables and it helps our health.”
This project has also already resulted in a new partnership with the Hudson Valley Farm Hub, a large farm and agricultural nonprofit in the region. In partnership with HVFH, we will be translating the manual into Spanish and presenting it to their entire staff. One farmer wrote to us that “I was informed and inspired by reading your publication and “sowing the seeds of food justice”. It is clear that your work entails not only food access, but also, sewing the seams that bring people (and resources) together.”
We also have heard from 18 farmers and 62 activists, growers and beginning farmers who went through our farm training programs. An illustration of their changes include:
- “The organization that I run, Georgia Farmers Market Association, is now rolling out a food justice approach to improving access to local and fresh food in Georgia and surrounding states.”
- “I have a small garden in the back and I grow vegetables an offer them to POC for free. This is why I am not making profit, so I don’t know if that counts. I also volunteer at the Sexual Assault Support Centre and support WOC and I bring the vegetables there.”
- “One of the main campaigns I support as Lead Community Organizer at Northern Plains Resource Council in Billings, Montana, is to establish a local food hub for marketing, aggregation, and distribution of products from local farmers and ranchers to restaurants, grocery stores, individuals, schools and hospitals.”
- “I am a Behavioral Assistant with Edni Counseling Services in Hackensack, NJ and work with children from ages 3 to 15. I incorporate the importance of healthy eating with my parents to minimize the effects of ADHD. I am hoping to reach the point where I can take the youth’s to community gardens to promote mindfulness practices, the power of growing food and education around additives, food colorings and other contaminants in the current food system.”
- “I provide nutrition education around plant-based eating to low-income immigrant communities. I specifically create action plans with patients that address chronic conditions, and how eating more plant-based foods will help to prevent/improve management of these conditions.”
- “Right after my Soulfire Session I made a curriculum to teach Teens about food Justice with theatre of the oppressed, dance and singing. It was amazing working with the young people in my neighborhood.”
- Successes: This project was successful in large part due to the partnerships that were forged over its duration. We relied immensely on the input and wisdom of Dennis Derryck, our technical advisor, Brenna Reagan, a farmer who assisted with research and Myles Lennon, who spearheaded writing the manual. Their support was integral to the project. We also benefited greatly from the community partnerships we made and continued to develop during this project. These partnerships allowed to us connect intimately with the communities that we serve, receive honest input and reach new communities with whom we previously did not have relationships. Furthermore, the platform of Soul Fire Farm proved essential to the development of the manual and gave us ample opportunity to share initial findings, receive feedback and fine tune our approach to ensure its accessibility and applicability for farmers.
- Challenges: One challenge we faced in this project was the stretched capacity of our small team. With additional capacity we could have followed up more often with our customers to receive feedback, reached out to more farms about their experience serving low-income communities, experimented with implementing additional government programs and collected more empirical data. It is also difficult to report extensively on the outcomes of this project as farmers are just beginning to implement the strategies we outlined.
- Project question: Despite the challenges described above, we feel that this project has made great progress by not only answering the question of how farmers can increase revenues while working with low-income customers but also by providing a guide and model that is accessible and replicable. This manual encapsulates information that was previously unavailable to most farmers and spans literature-based research on this subject, logistical guidelines for navigating obstacles and securing support and real world experience by farmers who are living the commitment to feed low-income and marginalized people.
- Additional work: Due to the lack of comprehensive research on this topic, we relied heavily on case studies and farmers’ experience to illustrate the viability and progress of farming for low-income consumers. It would therefore be useful in this work to have empirical data on how many farmers are serving low-income communities, the size of their farms and markets, what distribution models they use, how their use of government programs, private funding and subsidized models affects their budget and whether the number of farmers reaching low-income markets is increasing over time.
- Beneficiaries: The primary demographic that will benefit from this project are farmers trying to expand their markets, particularly those in proximity to low-income communities, as well as beginning farmers who are establishing their market and mission. This manual could also prove beneficial to organizations that support farmers such as agricultural extension programs, agricultural universities and food and agricultural nonprofits. The manual could similarly be employed by community and food access organizations that seeking to work with farmers to increase food access in low-income communities. Ultimately, low-income consumers are also a significant beneficiary of this project as its long term impact should indicate an increase in the number of low-income consumers who have affordable access to fresh and nutritious produce.