Farms need to move beyond a donation model to address food justice.
New distribution models that address food access show promise— mobile markets that reach people where they live, that require people to pay but with subsidies, and that provide educational opportunities.
Selling directly to schools present opportunities but also challenges because of personnel, logistical, and infrastructure constraints.
The NYS Farm to School program, though well-intentioned, is having some unintended consequences.
More efforts need to be made to rebuild the community that once existed among farmers—that provided opportunities for knowledge sharing and support.
Talking with Sarah Simon of Common Ground Farm
Contributor: Javier Gomez
Founded 19 years ago as a non-profit farm and food justice education program primarily operating through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, Common Ground was a local pioneer of the CSA structure, and has contributed to the growing popularity of local CSA’s today. However, as a food justice organization, Common Ground Farm found itself eventually limited by the CSA business model.
Sarah Simon, Farm Director at Common Ground shares, “There was a limit to how fully our food justice and education mission could be pursued if all the food being grown was pre-sold to shareholders.” About six years ago Common Ground Farm made the decision to transition from the CSA model by launching the for-profit Obercreek Farm. Obercreek operates today using a CSA model as a completely separate entity from Common Ground Farm.
Soon after this organizational shift, Sarah came onboard. “As the idea of local food developed and people became accustomed to the thought of buying directly from a farmer,” she reports, “that allowed for the creation of this for-profit farm, but then Common Ground was left with an identity crisis and that’s right around when I showed up!” Sarah initially began as a part of the farm crew growing produce on about 4 acres of their 10 acre farm. Over the years, however, she took on a leadership role in the organization and in several ways has led the organization to new perspectives and strategies in its role as a food justice organization.
When I arrived the farm’s food justice mission was primarily fulfilled through donations, which is a pretty common way that farms try to help with food insecurity in their communities. But it’s also more of a band-aid to the problem. In the last four years, we’ve kept donating food weekly to a small network of about seven local food pantries, but we’ve made a stretch to develop new programs where we are exploring and piloting new economic models that other local farmers may not be exploring.
It doesn’t escape Sarah that Common Ground’s newfound position as experimenters in farm business models aligns neatly with the organization’s history as an early CSA implementer, and she shares examples of the success Common Ground Farm has had using models such as institutional procurement and operating urban farmers’ markets. One innovative model is the mobile market it manages as part of the Beacon Farmers’ Market. A van with solar panels built into the vehicle’s roof to power a cooler and freezer full of produce, the mobile market allows Common Ground direct access to low-income neighborhoods and senior housing parks in Beacon and in Newburgh. This mobile model enables Common Ground to reach consumers who lack the means and/or ability to transport themselves to local farmers’ markets.
At the Beacon Farmers’ Market, Common Ground has developed an “urban hub” for their produce and their food justice and education mission. In three years of operating the market, Common Ground Farm has seen their sales triple, and other regular vendors have reported similar results. Sarah credits this growth in sales to a combination of providing educational activities and games at the market, subsidising produce purchases made through SNAP/EBT, and physically changing the location of the market from the waterfront to a more central location in the city.
On the institutional procurement front, Common Ground Farm currently sells produce to schools in the City of Beacon. Prior to their engagement with schools, most of Common Ground’s wholesale clients were restaurants, but now they have shifted almost entirely to Beacon schools. Sarah outlines some of the challenges she sees in this new opportunity, among them limitations of personnel, equipment, transport, and procurement policy constraints.
There are a lot of restrictions placed on food service directors. Its often just one person trying to figure out how to feed thousands of children on a limited budget, while conforming to USDA standards. Then throw in the challenge of buying locally and getting fresh fruits and veggies. Also, a lot of school kitchens do not have the cooking equipment to process raw vegetables because they basically have just microwaves and ovens to heat up pre-cooked foods.
In addition to these limitations the schools also must follow competitive bidding guidelines and often lack the capacity to transport any food from farms themselves. Both are barriers to entry for small farms that would otherwise benefit from gaining an institutional client.
Sarah also references the New York State Farm to School program. While supportive of it’s core concept she questions how effective it has been in increasing local food purchases. The program reimburses a school by about four times more than the current rate if the school is able to source 30 percent of their lunch food from local farms. She explains, “The nutritional standards of USDA are so rigid that you cannot hit 30 percent through local procurement without buying protein or milk. In our region, the milk bid keeps getting won by New Jersey and Connecticut farmers, and they can’t just source New York milk because it is a competitive process. And then, the cost of protein is too expensive to actually make local purchasing worth it even with the reimbursement.” Instead of supporting the purchase of existing local produce, Sarah worries the program will encourage farmers to develop produce that can be competitive candidates for cheaply meeting the the 30 percent goal without consideration for the sustainability or impact of developing produce with such a limited purpose and market.
As Sarah detailed the experience Common Ground Farm has had with these models she talked about why Common Ground is able to take on these innovative projects, while most small for-profit farms with a limited capacity are able to do little more than concentrate on growing their produce. Sarah explains: “Developing market opportunities is one of those areas that takes a lot of effort, and most small farmers are doing all they can just to grow the produce and get them to market. They don’t have the time and resources to develop those markets, and that’s where we as the nonprofit can come in and really think about maturing our local markets.”
Like other businesses impacted by our global economy, Sarah maintains, farms don’t seem to have the resources to actually innovate their way out of unsustainable practices even if they have recognized them. She points to the sense of community that historically existed around farming communities as a missing component that would probably be helpful right about now.