America’s emergency food assistance system has tended to distribute a high amount of unhealthy food to citizens that need help. The Lowcountry Food Bank is like most in the United States. Unless someone is paying attention to nutrition and actively seeking healthy food items, a lot of the food items distributed are often unhealthy, if consumed on a routine basis or in large portions. Obesity and its related health conditions (e.g. strokes, heart disease) are very high among minorities, African Americans and Hispanics in particular, and low-income residents in the Lowcountry, as well as all across the United States. People reliant on emergency food assistance through churches, community-based human service organizations and food banks may not have a choice about eating healthy. They eat what they can access. If we are to make a dent in the obesity issues that low income residents have, we must alter what is done through the emergency food assistance system in America.
The Growing Foods Locally project seeks to change the traditional way one thinks about community food assistance and experiments with clustering small-scale farm operations with a selected group of emergency food assistance providers (i.e., called a micro-economic agricultural clustering approach) with the goal of enhancing the amount of nutritional food items available to the poor. It also seeks to alter the food handling, preparation and consumption behaviors of emergency food assistance providers and consumers.
The project sought a partnership with ten small-scale farms in Beaufort Country that were willing to work with the Lowcountry Food Bank and 25 nonprofits that are affiliated with the Food Bank. Farmers have committed between 0.25 to 4 acres of their land to producing fresh vegetables and some fruit for the Food Bank’s use. The Food Bank distributes the produce to its affiliating nonprofits. These non-profits are mostly church-based food pantries, food distribution and feeding programs, but also include a group home, the area foster parents association and a regional human service agency that works with families affiliated by HIV/AIDs and other related health conditions. The non-profits are upgrading their food safety routines and distributing the fresh produce to their consumers. The Food Bank, the 25 non-profits and consumers are all receiving additional nutrition education and food safety training. Farmers are receiving technical assistance to make their yields higher, their distribution more efficient, and enhancing their marketing channels. Consumers are receiving food demonstrations, nutrition education and nutrition information resources in addition to the fresh produce and other food items.
During the second year of the project and as yields from the small-scale farms become reliable and of consistently even quality, the Food Bank is assisting farmers in marketing and distributing their produce to commercial markets. A marketing plan is being developed. Thus the emergency food assistance system is also becoming a player in micro-economic development within the region. Starting with one local restaurant in Beaufort, the project is experimenting with having some of the farmers’ produce used and identified as locally grown. Additional retailers include the BiLo and Piggly Wiggly grocery stores. They have agreed to market the farmers’ produce in a special display. Farmers markets and road side stands are also part of the growing marketing channels used.
Several other partnerships are being tried to see what the success is in enhancing the amount of nutritious food that is available to low income residents. These partnerships include working with interested schools to start gardens and having the kids commit to growing a set number of pounds of food which is then distributed through the Food Bank system. Another partnership involves working with the local technical college’s culinary arts program to learn to prepare nutritious meals for distribution through the Kids Café program (a low income children’s before and after school feeding program run by the Food Bank and some of its affiliates).
What we learn from this project that was successful will be spread eventually to all 10 counties that the Lowcountry Food Bank services.
Co-Principal Investigators: Robert Strickland, Director of Operations, Lowcountry Food Bank and Dr. Kathleen Robinson, Research Professor, Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life, Clemson University
This project is currently funded through grants from the USDA’s Community Food Program ($225,000), the Donnelly Foundation ($90,000), the Sisters of Charity Foundation ($202,970), and the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation ($100,000).
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