Institute On Family and Neighborhood Life

First Year Results

Creating a Sustainable, Locally Grown Community Food System that Provides Nutritious Food to Low-Income Residents of Beaufort County, South Carolina

Year One Annual Report (October 1, 2005 to September 30, 2006)

Lowcountry Food Bank
1635 Cosgrove Avenue
North Charleston, SC  29405

Robert Strickland, Project Director
Kathleen K. Robinson, Project Co-Director
USDA Award #2005-33800-1116452

The report of Year One activities is structured according to the goals and objectives stated in the award document.

Program Goals and Objectives

A.  To develop and sustain profitable farming systems in Beaufort County, South Carolina, ensuring that 10 local farming enterprises become profitable within a three-year period.

At the end of Year One, eight farming enterprises were participating in the GFL project.  Six were active growers and two farmers were sporadically involved.  Our initial goal stated that we would recruit five farming enterprises during Year One, although we recruited three additional farmers in attempts to meet forecasted production quotas.

1. A multidisciplinary Farming Systems Research and Development (FSR&D) team provided appraisals and technical assistance to eight small-scale farming enterprises during Year One.  This team included an agricultural economist, entomologist, plant pathologist, crop management specialist, pest management specialist, horticulturalist, small business developer, farm management specialist, agricultural economist, agronomist/soil scientist, community developer, food/human nutrition scientist, registered dietician, and biosystems engineer. Two faculty members from Clemson University’s Department of Communication were also consulted on social marketing strategies. In addition, three team visits were conducted during year one. At various times during the year, the IPM and crop production specialist team conducted two additional visits to assist with crop management, soil fertility, mulching, and seed quality issues. The results of these visits led Clemson research staff to distribute heirloom seeds to the farmers.  Each farming enterprise was also given the results of soil and water tests, and advised on how to amend soil, resolve water irrigation issues, and enhance crop-planting practices to create higher yields. An additional training session addressed crops rotations,cover cropping practices, refining planting schedules, and establishing succession plans for two senior farmers.

2. In Year One, we were able to complete a portion of the systems analysis with participating farmers to determine current issues faced in harvesting, distributing, and the marketing of food. In addition, business management assessments were completed for each farming operation.  Business services that were provided included the enhancement of farming operations, piloting of marketing approaches to farmers markets, the dissemination of retail grocery marketing options, and the creation of a centralized storage facility. For Year Two of the GFL program, farm operation management workshops and additional technical assistance will be provided, with a specified focus upon consistent crop production, innovative marketing systems, and personal financial accounting and record keeping.   

3. Intent to Purchase agreements were produced to ensure farmers that the LCFB would procure up to a defined percentage of crops at agreed upon cost-to-market purchase prices. Using Intent to Purchase agreements in Year One, we objectively forecasted produce pounds received through the development of farmer production, commitment spreadsheets.  With agreements signed, the GFL program took root in Winter 2005 with the safety-net purchase and delivery of collards for the holiday season (Thanksgiving and Christmas).  Unfortunately, changes in project leadership stalled initial efforts to create an effective procurement and distribution channel. Fortunately, the advent of an abundant spring harvest combined with new leadership permitted the LCFB to officially develop and implement the harvesting, procurement, and distribution system currently guiding the GFL project (began on May 3, 2006).

Despite preliminary efforts to forecast total poundage received for Year One, uncontrolled variables affected initial projections for pounds received.  According to amended budgets submitted to USDA, we projected the purchase of 227,100 pounds of produce from participating farmers in Year One for a projected cost of $49,962. (This figure was determined by multiplying pounds by 0.22/lb.)  Poundage reports for Year One revealed that the LCFB only purchased 82,841 pounds of produce from GFL farmers for $17,367.18 (an average of 0.21/lb).  Contrary to the initially projected 75% of total crops projected for procurement in Year One, the LCFB only received 39% of farmer produce.  Our rationale for this unexpected short fall in crop purchases is due in part to several extenuating factors. One factor affecting crop production came from natural deterrents, such as dry summer weather and deer, which negatively influenced the level of poundage initially projected for procurement in grant Year One. In addition, our efforts to accommodate two outcomes simultaneously, have thwarted efforts to maximize produce production in Year One of the program (economic development of farming enterprises and human services for low-income clients). Notably, GFL prices only reflect cost to market figures, which have been designed to create an economic safety net for participating, low-income farmers. To ensure farmer profitability, participants were encouraged to market the majority of their crop yields to external vendors (economic development). Any high-demand crops that were not directly affected by harsh weather conditions were often sold to more profitable external vendors to compensate for shortfalls in expected yields and GFL cost-to-market prices. Based upon pay advances, additional capital acquired from GFL sales, and utilizing economies of scale for purchasing supplies, our farmers were able to market 61% of their GFL crops through inexpensive, external local markets (road-side stands, word of mouth, and local farmer markets). Unfortunately, high produce sales to external markets consequently inhibited the level of produce available for low-income clients in Year One of the program. In Year Two, we will begin employing marketing techniques that will attempt to increase participating farmer revenues without affecting the flow of fresh alternatives to low-income clients (explained in greater depth in  “Program Self-Sustainability: A Marketing Solution” Section).

In addition to lucrative produce sales, cooperative partnerships developed with other experienced farmers, LCFB staff, and Clemson Extension services have assisted GFL farmers in discovering resources unattainable to an individual GFL producer. For example, four GFL farmers were unable to finance the delivery of desperately needed lime.  To alleviate high shipping costs the LCFB developed a transportation solution using Piggly Wiggly to backhaul the purchased lime from Springfield, Georgia to the farmers’ fields. The purchased lime adjusted high PH levels in affected soil and helped yield thousands of pounds of high quality yellow squash, zucchini, and cucumbers totaling $11,446.43 in combined safety-net revenue for the participating farmers.

4. Five thousand dollars ($5000) in working capital per participating farmer was allocated to advance zero-interest loans.  In Year One, four of the seven participating farmers used the pay advance option to purchase desperately needed fertilizer and equipment for a total amount of $4,829.25. These advancements aided farmers in producing high-quality products sold for distribution to low-income clients and in local markets. At the end of Year One, there still remains $2,950.89 in unpaid pay advances, which will be repaid through the distribution of upcoming collard and cabbage harvests.  

B. To increase the self-reliance of 10 farming enterprises and 25 nonprofit operations working with the LCFB as a food delivery system, developing long-term solutions to related community food, health and socioeconomic issues.

1. During Year One of the GFL program, the draft for an on-going, self-sustaining marketing model was developed. In addition, an alternative marketing strategy was researched and examined through an on-site visit to observe a farmer’s auction in Burton, Ohio. Four GFL farmers, a Clemson Extension agent, and the LCFB’s Compliance Analyst observed the auction first-hand and interviewed its supporters to determine if this model was replicable in South Carolina. During Year Two, retail marketing channels for participating farmers will be enhanced by developing each participant’s production capabilities.  Production issues that must be dealt with first involve getting higher quality seeds to some of the farmers, dealing with planting and mulching practices, enhancing harvesting practices to cut product waste, ensuring more consistency among products received from farmers, and managing levels of production. 

2. The Food Bank provided delivery, storage, inspection, and disposal services in Year One. Utilizing Sisters of Charity and USDA funding, the LCFB financed the construction and installation of a centralized, 14'x16' walk-in cooler facility that was placed directly on a participating farm (Barefoot Farms).  All but one of the farmers delivered their produce directly to the facility for pickup, with the LCFB making 43 deliveries of fresh produce to five central distribution sites located throughout the Low Country region (estimated 8 deliveries per month). An additional five deliveries were made to mass distribution sites coordinated by Beaufort County rural feeding programs and the Hampton, Colleton, and Jasper County Coalitions totaling 78,525 pounds of GFL produce and other emergency food items.

The total pounds of GFL produce distributed were combined with other food items available through the LCFB.  A combined total of 757,420 pounds of GFL produce and additional food items were distributed through the 18 participating agencies during Year One. Accordingly, this figure represents a 40% increase over the year prior to the projects inception when only 549,344 pounds of food was distributed by the same agencies. In addition, participating agencies delivered 45,177 boxes/bags and/or meals to clients, which included GFL produce.  Readers should note each visit is called a “service episode” (rather than clients served), because some clients may have received several food bags/boxes and/or meals from one or more of the participating agencies on one or more occasions during Year One.

3. Twenty-five nonprofits located throughout Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton, and Jasper counties were selected for participation in the GFL project.  Selection was based upon objective measures, which included how reliable an agency had been in completing monthly meal reports and recording the numbers of clients served. To promote diversity, the types of services each nonprofit provided were also accessed (we wanted a variety of emergency pantry, soup kitchens, mass distribution, residential care, same day providers or some combination thereof). At the end of Year One, 15 agencies have committed to the GFL program full-time (i.e., 12 emergency pantries, 6 same-day distribution centers).  Three agencies withdrew active participation due in part to a lack of sustainable funding for produce and an inability to distribute certain products in bulk quantities (too much of the same product during a short span of time). Understanding agency rationales for withdrawn participation, the LCFB is currently developing planting schedules to avoid overstocks in like products, and removing undesirable crops, such as cucumbers, from Year Two commitments.  In addition, the LCFB’s Development and Food Solicitation departments are researching resources for expanding agency budgets and food inventories.

4. At the first agency orientation meeting held, an agency survey was conducted to determine: a) level of interest in the GFL project, b) equipment needs, c) technology needs, d) ratings of effectiveness of the LCFB’s services, f) whether or not the LCFB newsletter was read, g) used the internet, h) submitted orders via fax, phone, personal delivery, i) paid shared maintenance fees, and j) suggestions for improvement.  Based upon each agency’s resources and commitment to the GFL program, the project awarded incentives (eight fax machines, two pallet jacks, four concrete slabs) for nine nonprofit participants who were fully committed to meeting the GFL project’s rigorous training and sanitation requirements. The LCFB also financed the construction of four mass distribution centers located directly on GFL agency sites.  Placements of concrete slabs and the purchase of pallet jacks were designed to expand agency capacities to deliver food by considerable amounts, hence increasing the number of recipients served in the long-term. In accordance with employing new distribution techniques, these capital expenditures are predicted to increase the impact and longevity of GFL feeding programs, possibly exceeding our 52% goal.

In addition to identifying mass distribution centers for agency expansion, the LCFB has located and contacted local vendors for the purchase of used double-door commercial coolers and fax machines for small-sized GFL agencies.  Those agencies not outfitted for mass distributions are receiving commercial cooler units and office equipment to enhance their ability to store perishable items and to improve internal infrastructures (such as GFL produce). Despite an inability to utilize the mass distribution model of food delivery, small-sized agencies are encouraged to develop or participate in countywide hunger coalitions.

C. To address the food and nutrition needs of 3,000 low-income consumers in rural Beaufort County and surrounding areas by equipping 25 local non-profit feeding programs with the training, skills and resources needed to prepare and deliver nutritious foods.

1. During Year One, Mathematica completed the Second Harvest’s Hunger Study on a sample of Lowcountry Food Bank agencies and reported findings back to the LCFB.  This has given the LCFB a thorough picture of hunger, nutrition intake, and food assistance patterns in the area, including the Beaufort County target region in which the participating farmers and agencies are located.  Some of the findings will form the baseline for follow-up evaluations during the next two years. In addition to the agency needs assessment described above, the LCFB also recorded baseline trends in agency distribution prior to Year One of the project.  To monitor trends in agency distributions, a system for tracking changes in the types and amounts of food GFL agencies distributed was created.  Operations staff began the assessment process by examining each participating agency’s food safety needs.  In addition, the implementation of a healthy item tracking code was utilized to access the LCFB’s total inventory. The change allowed qualified staff to rate products in accordance with their nutritional values, and it also directly assisted in tracking changes in the types of foods distributed (i.e. more healthy).  Pre-GFL project and first year assessments indicated that the LCFB distributed 130,049 pounds of healthy food items to the 18 participating agencies before the start of the project. All reports used this healthy foods code and baseline figure to analyze Year One accomplishments (63% increase in healthy distribution in Year One).  A number of similar assessments and changes in inventory tracking software are scheduled for Year Two.

2. On March 14, 2006, the LCFB hired a Nutrition Coordinator.  All participating agencies had to commit to attending the nutrition education program in order to receive GFL produce and needed equipment.  Using the Harvesters’ (The Community Food Network in Kansas City, Mo.) “Project STRENGTH: Adult Nutrition Training Curriculum” as a base, an assertive, continuous nutrition education program was implemented to ensure that each participating agency had attended a minimum of three annual technical assistance and educational opportunities during the Year One of the GFL grant.  During Year One, a total of 14 training sessions were held.  The project aimed for a 98% participation rate in at least three educational events. Attendance in these trainings are as follows: a) sixty percent (9 agencies) attended the minimum trainings required, b) thirty-three percent (5 agencies) attended one training, c) only one agency attended zero trainings, and d) Forty-seven percent (7 agencies) attended all seven trainings. Post-training evaluations revealed that all trainings were rated as either helpful or very helpful.
Each agency training event utilized a “train-the-trainer” certification process. This strategy was utilized for two specific purposes: 1) to train agency staff members and volunteers to provide clients with their own nutritional trainings, and 2) to encourage agencies to distribute healthier foods in addition to GFL produce. Agencies received certificates, copies of the Project STRENGTH curriculum, and all healthy recipes prepared. In addition to trainings, monthly food tasting and product demonstrations were conducted at the Yemassee Food Bank Center, mass distribution locations, and area Kids Cafes.  These demonstrations indicated how to prepare food items in healthy ways, with all nutritional recipes distributed directly to participating agencies.  Nutrition education visual aids (food models, posters, etc.) have been provided to all agencies as well. 

We are confident that hands-on training courses, visual demonstrations, and the LCFB’s nutritional shift in healthy foods distribution, have directly influenced the 63% increase in nutritional distributions of GFL agencies in comparisons to activities prior to the USDA grant award (04/05-199,969 healthy pounds distributed vs. 05/06- 325,560 healthy pounds distributed). In addition, Year One surveys also indicated that participating agencies are using and distributing more nutritious foods.  Noted, due to a USDA budget cutback, the originally planned “health assessment and nutritional counseling of clients” component was deleted during the budget amendment stage. Dually noted, leaders are currently planning to apply for additional funding that will finance this segment of the evaluation.

3. One Beaufort Agency Conference and a USDA/TEFAP sponsored meeting was held to inform agencies about what government assistance programs are available to Low Country residents, and to link their low-income clients to appropriate service providers, including TEFAP, WIC and Food Stamps. Both seminars described in detail how each program functions, how to structure reports, and how to serve clients in accordance with Federal mandates and policies. In addition, the CSFP and USDA food assistance programs were directly utilized to provide nutritional training to low-income clients in Year One of the program. Healthy recipes and nutritional tips for cooking government allocated foods were included in all emergency assistance boxes that were provided to recipient clients.

D. To develop a comprehensive response to local agricultural and nutrition issues in Beaufort County by integrating Growing Food Locally objectives and activities with local education systems, culinary job-training models and government assistance programs.

1. The local educational component was in effect for only a portion of the grant cycle. The abrupt closing of the Whale Branch Elementary School’s Kids Feeding Kids program has temporarily stalled our efforts to distribute GFL produce to identified Kids Café sites. This outcome has not matched the defined timeline for completion due to funding inadequacies and administrative changes. Due to Whale Branch Elementary School’s termination of its Kids Feeding Kids Program, our ability to deliver the 100 bushels identified in the original grant proposal has been deterred.

2. The Technical College of the Lowcountry’s Community Kitchen Culinary Arts Training program also terminated operation this year due to insufficient funding. In total, fifteen chefs graduated and prepared over 9,946 meals for children participating in five Kids Café sites located throughout the Beaufort County area.  All 15 have successfully found jobs as chefs in local areas. Project leaders are currently exploring two temporary alternatives to the job-training model.  A potential collaboration has developed with the Beaufort County Adult Educational Program that would involve the development of a 20-week joint GED and Culinary Arts Program located in Beaufort County. Initial discussions regarding this program have been encouraging. Temporarily, the Academy for Career Excellence (A.C.E) in Ridgeland is continuing to prepare food for our network of Kids Café Programs.

3. During Year One, the evaluation emphasis has concentrated on the development of reporting systems that will allow proper tracking of formative evaluation data and the development of baseline information to track summative data over time.  For example, meal reports from participating agencies were compared before the project and after the first year of the project (and each year after).  The amount of healthy food items received and distributed throughout the network is being tracked and compared to pre-project periods.  The emphasis in Year One has been on the evaluation of farming operations, and changes in agency and LCFB distribution patterns.  In Year Two, we will be adding an economic analysis, consumer behavior surveys, and individual health behavior surveys.  At the close of the first year, a case study, journal article and series of economic analysis studies have been planned and will be completed in year two.  These publications will be sent to the USDA when completed.

Leadership Changes During Year One

Both the GFL’s Project Director and the LCFB’s Executive Director changed during Year One.  This abrupt shift in leadership has prompted the use of several new initiatives, which have accounted for grant finances and effectively tracked program performance. For example, in accordance with a newly designed Purchase Order system, a disbursement log has been established that is intended to calculate the appropriate ratio of funds drawn from all GFL funding sources for expenses such as the procurement of produce. The log also provides documentation assuring accountability of grant finances and is easily tracked by purchase order numbers. By assigning product codes for the variety of produce purchased, produce distribution and invoicing is continuously documented and monitored utilizing the LCFB’s Dogwood Inventory Tracking software. In addition, a variety of spreadsheets have been designed including a GFL grant scorecard capable of tracking outcome measurement and program performance. To maintain effective implementation of the GFL program, the LCFB’s Operations Staff have been effectively integrated into the ongoing planning and implementation of the GFL program. In addition, the farmers’ direct needs, concerns, and critical input are accessed weekly through on-site visits and personal interactions with LCFB Operational Staff. This ongoing communication provides valuable feedback, which becomes a catalyst for structural improvements.

Program Self-Sustainability: A Marketing Approach

In attempts to maintain program self-sustainability and to expand services beyond USDA’s three-year commitment, GFL partners have developed a comprehensive, long-term solution for financing the GFL program beyond 2008. Utilizing conventional “brokerage” techniques, the LCFB’s proposed plan will allow farmers to continue harvesting crops without the hassle of marketing outlays. Functioning as the farmers’ official marketing and distribution agent, the LCFB already retains the infrastructure and expertise to market farmer products to local grocery chains.  By assuming the distribution role for marketing farmers’ produce, the LCFB will utilize a small percentage of acquired profits to finance expenses, and to purchase fresh produce for low-income clients. Innovatively, this process will dually accommodate profitability concerns of participating farmers as well the nutritional needs of all the LCFB’s low-income clients. More importantly, this transition will allow participating farmers to focus solely upon production, and gives the program the ability to recruit more than 10 producers. The LCFB’s strategic goal for Year Two of the GFL program is to utilize partnerships with Clemson University and other professionals to assist in the implementation of this self-sufficient, marketing model, which will inevitably reduce the LCFB’s current dependence upon federally and privately funded grants-in-aid.