With growing demand for locally-produced food, experts are looking for better ways to connect rural farmers – and what they produce – to local people who need healthy food.
That’s the goal behind Food LINC, a new U.S. Department of Agriculture program that’s launching in 10 regions across the country with nearly $3 million in private and federal funding. The Duke Endowment is supporting the effort in eastern North Carolina.
“Our three-year, $800,000 grant is aimed at helping rural United Methodist congregations play a bigger role in the local economy,” says Robb Webb, director of the Endowment’s Rural Church program area. “This is a unique opportunity to increase the capacity of churches and strengthen rural communities. But most importantly, it has the potential to increase access to nutritious food for families in underserved areas while increasing the prosperity of local farmers.”
Growing Our Food
Farms in eastern North Carolina grow much of the country’s corn, soybeans and sweet potatoes – and the region ranks as a top producer of hogs, turkey, poultry and eggs.
But eastern North Carolina includes more than half of the state’s most socially and economically distressed counties. Many of those 42 counties have “food deserts,” or areas where people have to travel a long distance to purchase reasonable-priced healthy food. The region also has the state’s highest percentage of obesity rates.
“This same region is home to roughly 300 rural United Methodist churches,” Webb says. Those churches have useful infrastructure, including buildings, vans and commercial kitchens. Many already provide food ministries such as food pantries and weekend meal programs for children.
“Most critical,” he says, “they have congregations full of people who are committed to serving God and serving their communities.”
The Food LINC program will help congregations see their connection to local food systems, and discover ways to use their resources, people and buying power on behalf of producers and consumers alike.
Across the country, Food LINC will use host organizations to coordinate the program in each region. In eastern North Carolina, The Conservation Fund’s Resourceful Communities will play that role, recruiting churches and then providing technical assistance, training opportunities and small grants.
The idea is that congregations will strengthen food ministries to support new markets for farmers and connect consumers to those markets, explains Mikki Sager, Resourceful Communities’ director.
“Churches may open their parking lots for farmers’ markets after Sunday services,” she says. “Or they might start a small business using local produce. We know that zucchini and tomato crops thrive there. Congregants might work with local cooks to start a zucchini bread business or begin bottling and selling salsa.”
The goal is to recruit more than 35 congregations and 100 church members in the initiative.
“We know many of these churches are already feeding people,” Sager says. “We want to make sure they have a chance to build community as well.”
Food LINC is part of USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative. The USDA, along with the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Delta Regional Authority, has committed $850,000 in public funding to the program. Private philanthropic funders – including The Duke Endowment, Gates Family Foundation, Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, Oak Foundation, The One Foundation, Surdna Foundation, and Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation – have committed $2 million.
Kristen R. Richardson-Frick