Local farms and organizations partner up to build up farm to fork connections
Putting farmers who grow fruits and vegetables together with people who want and need healthy food makes a lot of sense to Noel McKay. He is Social Service Coordinator with the national, Missouri-based Horizon Housing Foundation. In west central Missouri, McKay is taking action by working with local farmers and nonprofit partners to build the Farm SHARE “veggie box” program.
Farm SHARE is proving to not only deliver great food to people but also grow the local farm economy. It is among the local food and farm connections to be featured at the 2nd annual Farm to Fork Summit February 11 in Osceola, MO, during the opening panel.
Farm SHARE is a monthly box of farm fresh fruits, vegetables, and eggs that Horizon purchases from area farmers for residents of apartment complexes it serves. Horizon provides services to residents of housing built with federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits.
“We were hearing from managers that a lot of people were running out of food at the end of the month, and that many struggled to buy fresh, healthy options,” McKay said.
Ordering fresh food from nearby farms is key, he added. “Long term we want to build up local communities by supporting local economies,” he said. “We all know that stronger communities build stronger families.”
Buying from smaller local farmers is not a simple task, however, in this global food industry age. Most food in the grocery store and in restaurants travels thousands of miles, even across oceans. Smaller local farms do not fit into global-scale ordering and distribution systems.
Horizon turned to area nonprofit partners for help.
Healthy Nevada, a community organization serving Vernon County, developed and launched the program there. It works with Nevada-Vernon County Farmers’ Market vendors to fill Farm SHARE boxes, which go to two apartment complexes in Nevada.
Farm SHARE expanded over the 2019 growing season to two additional apartment complexes that Horizon serves in west central Missouri: Katy Trail Estates in Clinton and Ridgeway Villas in Raymore.
The food systems program at West Central Missouri Community Action Agency organized Farm SHARE boxes for these sites in partnership with the regional community development corporation New Growth.
West Central worked with the Kansas City Food Hub to fill 250 Farm SHARE boxes with more than 2,500 pounds of farm-fresh fruits and vegetables, along with a dozen eggs per box. The KC Food Hub is a farmer owned and operated cooperative of 17 west central Missouri and eastern Kansas growers.
New Road to Market
How Farm SHARE builds the local food economy is not just a matter of sales that smaller farms need but also a matter of systems they need. The KC Food Hub, for example, formed four years ago to help farmers with the ordering and distribution systems they need to be more efficient and effective.
“We want to keep our farmers on the farm farming, not running around trying to make sales calls on their own,” said Alicia Ellingsworth, Sales and Production Manager for KC Food Hub and a farmer member.
KC Food Hub’s primary customers are corporate cafeterias and other large buyers who want local foods; the buyers bypass global distributors and work directly with the food hub. But they do not buy 100 percent of what KC Food Hub farmers supply each week. KC Food Hub can then fill veggie box orders with items that it may have too much of, or too little.
“Farm SHARE is a big deal for us,” Ellingsworth said. It helps the hub sell more of the food that its farmers produce in any given week, which adds to farmers’ bottom line with revenue for product that might have gone un-sold.
“We want to sell everything we grow,” she said. KC Food Hub farmers had bumper crops last year of tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers. Farm SHARE moved more of that bounty to more people.
The veggie boxes also helped build the farm to eater connection, she said. “We get to know them, and they get to know where their food comes from.”
The Farm SHARE model has potential to grow in west central Missouri. Across the country, for example, more doctors are prescribing local fresh fruits and vegetables for patients with chronic and dietary related illnesses. Nonprofits partnering with farmers and communities are helping make it happen.
New Growth is working with the KC Food Hub, West Central Missouri Community Action Agency and other partners to explore such options for local economy building. A recent USDA Local Food Promotion Program grant award supports their efforts.
“This area is ripe for growth,” said Katie Nixon, Food Systems Associate Director at West Central.
The nine-county region is home to 7,500 acres of fruit and vegetable production and 2,500 beginning farmers. A 2014 study found that the unmet demand for local/regional food in the nearby greater Kansas City area alone exceeds $125 million annually.
“Farmers in our area are eager to find ways to meet this demand,” Nixon said.
West central Missouri residents who received Farm SHARE boxes this past growing season are enthusiastic also.
A survey of recipients indicated many gained access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and eggs they need for better health and wellness. One resident commented, for example: “I made hard-boiled eggs for a snack instead of junk food.”
For more information
Contact Food Systems Associate Director Katie Nixon at West Central Missouri Community Action Agency: 660-476-2185 ext. 1311 or knixon (AT) wcmcaa.org.