November 8, 2021 |Kathleen Marks, Monica McCann and Donna Pratt | Food and Farms

An Under-Utilized Solution to Rural Food Relief: Local BIPOC-Led Organizations

The Conservation Fund’s Resourceful Communities program supports environmental, economic, and social justice benefits for communities that need it most. While all three of these goals and related challenges have been heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic, our network and expertise provided opportunities to support meaningful, locally driven efforts to enhance local food access for those in need while supporting local farmers.

During the pandemic, we’ve disbursed hundreds of emergency COVID-19 rapid relief grants targeting rural, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) led and serving community organizations in North Carolina, with an emphasis on locally sourced food relief. With support from private funders like The Duke Endowment and the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, we’ve been able to support grassroots organizations that struggled to access federal relief programs or that needed additional support to address increased community need.

11 8 21 SHFB Resourceful Communities NC c Olivia Jackson 1911 8 21 SHFB Resourceful Communities NC c Olivia Jackson 6Second Harvest Food Bank. Photos by Olivia Jackson. 

North Carolina ranks 10th in the nation for hunger, and emergency relief grants revealed a growing need across the state—not just for food but also transportation, refrigeration, staff, and more—especially in rural areas. We recognized that pandemic relief efforts favored and reinforced existing systems. In other words, organizations that had access, resources, capacity and existing networks to serve their communities prior to the pandemic—including large, predominantly white organizations with substantial budgets and administrative infrastructure—accessed relief funding more easily.

What more can be done to help the most vulnerable, affected communities? Here are some recommendations:

1. Focus on local

There is one common denominator to resilient food systems: They’re LOCAL.

Prioritizing and incentivizing food security efforts that utilize local farm products, achieves a number of goals: Recipients get healthy, culturally appropriate food; small farmers suffering from lost markets generate revenue; and community partners ensure that those in need are served. We found that local food relief driven by community networks are more successful at getting food on the table for those in need while enhancing local economies.

Some regional rural food hubs, which are non-profit aggregators of local farm products that are deeply rooted in the community, actually increased revenues during the pandemic. By increasing their purchases from local small farmers who had lost their markets early in the pandemic, and working with local hunger relief organizations to coordinate fresh food donations to food insecure (often homebound) community members, they were able to provide ample support. These efforts build on local partnerships and demonstrate opportunities to sustain stronger local food systems post-pandemic.

This grant will be a tremendous help in our mission to serve food to insecure families in Bertie County. The funds will be used to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers and to purchase commercial refrigeration. It will help support the farmers, bring more produce to Bertie families, and provide additional commercial refrigeration to extend the shelf life needed to distribute the produce in a timely manner.”

- Deborah Freeman, Director of Good Shepherd Food Pantry

11 8 21 Presentation12021 Resourceful Communities grant recipients from left to right: Men and Women United for Youth and Families, Sandhills AGInnovation Center, and Feast Down East. Photos courtesy the respective grantees.

(2) Invest in small, BIPOC-led rural groups

To reach the most excluded community members and organizations, funding must prioritize small scale and BIPOC-led rural organizations.

Through emergency grant giving, we again noted that higher-resourced applicants could seem to be making a larger impact than other groups. They often served larger numbers, had more established partnerships and had the resources to write more compelling applications.

We recognize that many groups with significant on-the-ground impacts lack the capacity, infrastructure, or connections to effectively represent their work or make these “larger” impacts. However, they clearly reach community members that are often the most affected or excluded. Our grants deliberately prioritized support to small, BIPOC-led organizations that had limited access to funding. In one round of grants, 77 percent of grantees were BIPOC-led and serving; in another, 79 percent.

(3) Allow communities to define funding priorities

Applicants requested support for a variety of community needs. In one grant cycle, 43 percent of grant recipients requested funding to support mental health services, support for individuals leaving prison, internet access, childcare provision and more.

Even though organizations had distributed a significant amount of food aid, many noted that food-related costs were minimal, stating that food donations allowed them to keep that particular cost down. Instead, what they really needed was support for transportation to distribute the food, staff time because of lost volunteer support, or expenses to “keep the doors open.” Though these expenses are clearly part of food relief, they are harder to directly connect that need, limiting access to some funding programs. Flexible funding focused on community-determined priorities ensures stronger impacts and better stewardship of resources.

11 8 21 NC Grant Recipients Pictured and Credit to TRACTOR Food FarmsPhoto courtesy TRACTOR Food and Farms.

“We are grateful to Resourceful Communities for acknowledging the complexities of a rural food system, allowing our organization the flexibility to keep the agricultural dollar circulating in our mountain communities. We can safely say, with this COVID-19 funding alone, we have secured the future of several small family farms and provided at least 40 tons of fresh, nutritious food to folks who lack access."

- Dru Zucchino, Director of TRACTOR Food and Farms

(4) Remove restrictions that exclude Black churches and other non-denominational churches or faith-based groups

Local churches and faith-based groups step up and step in during community crises. In rural places, they typically ensure that services reach the most vulnerable. During the pandemic, they’ve demonstrated commitment and creativity.

Access to funding usually requires non-profit status. While many mainstream denominations offer member churches non-profit status under an IRS-issued group ruling, most independent, small churches of color lack formal IRS 501(c)(3) determination required for grant applications, functionally excluding them from support.

We have seen emerging partnerships across regional rural food hubs, rural churches, small farmers and local restaurants. Churches have been crucial because of their local relationships and infrastructure. They know who in their community needs food, can extend distribution and cold storage, and often pair other programming with local food (wellness checks, etc.). Some churches even engaged local restaurants to prep hot meals for those in need, helping these local businesses during a time of significant uncertainty.

You Can Help

The cost to incorporate local food into food relief programs is nominal, and the benefits to local economies, recipients, and more are significant. Reach out to us at the Resourceful Communities program for strategies that might work in your community.

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Written by

Kathleen Marks, Monica McCann and Donna Pratt

Kathleen Marks serves as Director of Program Strategy for Resourceful Communities, where she works closely with Program Director Monica McCann and Operations Director Donna Pratt. Kathleen, Monica, and Donna share a combined 45 years of experience working for The Conservation Fund. Along with the entire Resourceful Communities team, they work with a network of 500 grassroots and community organizations through a “triple bottom-line” approach that generates economic, environmental and social justice benefits.