- Education and Training: decision support system, focus group, networking, participatory research, study circle, workshop
- Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, market study
- Sustainable Communities: community planning, local and regional food systems, new business opportunities, partnerships, public participation, analysis of personal/family life, community services, social networks, community development
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.