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Making a local food system that works for everyone

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KAYTE YOUNG: From WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana, I'm Kayte Young, and this is Earth Eats.

PATTY CANTRELL: And that's why we call it a food value chain. It's a supply chain but it's based on the values that you have as far as how the land is treated, how people are treated, what kind of nutrition content is in your food. All those things, people up and down from the farmer to the consumer have an interest in. And so, this system that we're developing is about addressing those values and making sure they happen.

KAYTE YOUNG: This week on the show, an uplifting conversation about organizations and coalitions working together for stronger rule economies, and robust local food systems. We talk about micro lending, food hubs, farm to school programs and more. That's coming right up. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG: Thanks for listening to Earth Eats. I'm Kayte Young. One of the themes running through our show is about taking an honest look at our food systems, and talking with guests about what is problematic, understanding how we got here, and talking about what steps we might take to move things in a different direction, even when we recognize what needs to happen to move towards more sustainable food production, to correct unfair labor practices, or to address community food insecurity. So often, it feels like nothing changes, or that change doesn't take place on a large enough scale to make a real difference. That is why I was excited to meet with Katie Nixon and Patty Cantrell about the projects they're involved with in Missouri, enhancing local food systems. I thought our conversation might be inspiring for anyone across the Midwest working towards similar goals.

KATIE NIXON: I'm Katie Nixon. I work for West Central Missouri Community Action Agency and New Growth, and I am the food systems director.

PATTY CANTRELL: I'm Patty Cantrell. I'm the director of outreach and development for New Growth, which is a community development corporation organized by West Central Missouri Community Action Agency.

KATIE NIXON: So, community action has a long history in the United States. It was first started over 50 years ago to combat poverty and ever since then there's been different iterations of community action across the country. Missouri has 19 community action agencies that serve different regions within the state, and West Central serves nine regions in Missouri. We do a lot of assistance to low income families, and we also do community level work. A few years ago, the new CEO, Chris Thompson, saw a real need to do work around food systems and increasing food security, and market access for our farmers because most of them are limited resource, low income and he hired me and we started a food systems program to really do that in that region. Then we are expanding our work through New Growth, which Patty can elaborate on.

PATTY CANTRELL: So, that same CEO, in addition to starting a food systems program, launched another non-profit as an affiliate of West Central to work with communities and entrepreneurs and build more opportunity in a rural area. So, we work with the food systems program to support those entrepreneurs.

KAYTE YOUNG: New Growth focuses on micro lending, or micro enterprise financing, and they offer tools to help folks build up their credit scores to access traditional lending opportunities. They've developed a rural business center that serves several counties and assists in the development of small businesses in rural communities, including food and farming operations. I feel like I've heard about community action agencies, because I think we might have that in Indiana as well, something similar.

KATIE NIXON: Absolutely, you would. Community action, again, it was a national program launched under the Nixon administration, and it was actually designed by the same person who designed the Peace Corp. So, it was really designed on let's get money into the hands of communities, because communities know how to solve their own problems. So, that's why there are these community services block grants, CSBG, we call it and they're really the grants that make community action run across the country. Like I said, there's 19 in Missouri, I don't know how many there are in Indiana but I'm sure there's more than a dozen. And they each have their own specific geographic region, which is one of the reasons New Growth was started, was because we were bound by that nine county region. And so, New Growth has allowed the work to go beyond the bounds of that CSBG money to be more broad and to do more work.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yes. I think that the ones that I have heard of do not necessarily have a food systems focus.

KATIE NIXON: There are very few. Many engage in maybe food pantries and food banking and things like that. There are several progressive community action agencies across the country that see a need for food hubs, and work with farmers, and then they may work with community gardens. A lot of them engage in community gardening or maybe food rescue like gleaning, or something like that. This is the most comprehensive food system program that I know of, in the Midwest anyways. It's not usual.

PATTY CANTRELL: New Growth is really about building rural communities and entrepreneurs, so at the community level we advocate for food systems as part of rural economic development, and we talk about this being a key part of strong communities and local business and economy development.

PATTY CANTRELL: We've worked our small business center with a few, and one example is someone who had an opportunity to sell greens to the Kansas City Food Hub. They needed help just writing a grant, and we were able to help them do that, and they got some funding to expand. Now they're helping to supply schools in Kansas City. So, having those boots on the ground through our Women's Business Center and through some of that financing helps people take some of those steps. We're really trying to work with our partners to understand and address the needs of those small farm businesses, including connecting with our restaurants and things like that. It's definitely a work in progress, but here in this rural area, instead of waiting for people to bring us supplies, we're going to have to figure out how to do it ourselves in many ways. There's a great opportunity here to fill those gaps in products and services, and that's what we're after, trying to help people connect and get the resources they need.

KAYTE YOUNG: So, Katie, I would like to hear more about the different programs that you said you're doing through the food systems program.

KATIE NIXON: Yes, that's right. When we first started it was just me and ideas and the leadership team had to decide how to enter into this work, because you talk about food systems, there are so many entry points to work on and obviously the intersection between food security and food systems is a big one for Community Action Agency, because we have a lot of low income clients. Over 10,000 people use our services that are low income and, so, we did start with some food assistance programs and we still do some of those. Double Up Food Bucks is one with which we're a partnership. The Mid-America Regional Council is the leader on that and we match dollar for dollar at our rural farmers markets. But it's still challenging. Our rural farmers markets are small. They don't necessarily have a farm market manager and the program is a little bit paperwork heavy.

KATIE NIXON: So, we've really been able to retain some of the bigger markets through the Double Up Food Bucks, and they're well utilized because we have a lot of people on food stamps, on SNAP, in our rural communities that benefit from being able to double their dollar at a farmers market.

KAYTE YOUNG: And they're already shopping at the farmers market, you're familiar with it.

KATIE NIXON: Some of them were, and some of them found out about it and then started shopping, because they can double their dollar. So, that means there's more money in the pockets for the farmers, and there's more vegetables on the plates of low income families.

PATTY CANTRELL: And just those good fresh local vegetables.

KATIE NIXON: Yes. We like that program a lot. We also have some partnerships with the housing organization. They have low income families and they pay us to put together boxes of food for them. We buy from local farmers and then make the boxes and drop them off, so that's nice to be able to purchase local food. We're working on some farm to food bank initiatives but it's a bit of a slog. In our rural areas, we go after a lot of USDA funding but the matching is really hard. The matching requirements for a lot of these USDA programs is around 25%, and so it has to be non-federal funds and we don't really have the foundations that are bank rolling around here, so, it's hard to find those non-federal funds sometimes but we leverage a lot of partnerships to make that happen, which means our work tends to be more regional rather than focused in one city or one county.

KATIE NIXON: That's why our work fits both in West Central and a lot in New Growth because we're going across state borders and county borders, and really working regionally. We're working on a really big project right now with six states. We also work with NRCS. We have a conservation agriculture program, and we had a beginning farmer rancher development program through USDA. Through both of those programs we help beginning farmers, limited resource farmers, and any farmer really, who wants access to information and mentorship and help, because running a farm is a lot like running a small business. I'm a farmer myself so I know this thoroughly, but as a farmer you are the HR department, you're the accounting department, you're the business management, you're the marketing department, and then you're the harvest and the packing and the selling and the invoicing.

KAYTE YOUNG: All of that stuff.

KATIE NIXON: And delivery. [LAUGHS]

KAYTE YOUNG: And delivery. [LAUGHS]

KATIE NIXON: It's a lot, right? And you've got regulations to look at, and make sure you're in compliance with all of that. So, as an individual farmer who's getting started. It is really overwhelming. So, we want to be here to support them. We have a great mentorship program where we pair beginning farmers with farmers that have experience and we pay those experienced farmers for their time to spend with those beginning farmers. Farmers learn best from other farmers. They just do. In any profession when you're talking to somebody who knows your language, you're going to learn and you're going to respect that information more because they've done it.

KATIE NIXON: So, we often as farmers, I think, give away our services because we don't necessarily think they have the value that we should put on them. So, we really want to make our farmers feel valued for the many, many years that they've learned their craft. So, when we invite farmers to be speakers or we're doing a video series right now, if we're on their farm, we pay them for their time and make sure that they're valued in that way.

KAYTE YOUNG: That's Katie Nixon and Patty Cantrell with West Central Missouri Community Action Agency, and New Growth community development corporation. After a quick break, we'll return to our conversation and learn about how their work is strengthening their local food system and getting fresh, local food into schools, food pantries and restaurants. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG: Kayte Young here, this is Earth Eats, and I'm talking with Katie Nixon and Patty Cantrell. They work with organizations in Missouri focused on strengthening rural economies and local food systems. I told Katie and Patty that I was excited to hear about their program that gets fresh, locally grown food into food assistance programs. So often, this high quality fresh food is only available through high-end restaurants, natural food stores or farmers markets, and those are not the places where low income folks typically access food. I was also curious about their farm to school program.

PATTY CANTRELL: I have a farm to school specialist and she works in our nine counties to work with these rural schools because they're not in any distribution. Even the Kansas City Food Hub, of which I am also a member and president, we can't afford to deliver to an hour away from Kansas City. It's just not logistically feasible. So, can we find a farmer next to that school that only services 200 kids, that could probably produce enough food for that kitchen to satisfy the tomato need or whatever? So, Jaclyn Carroll, our farm to school specialist, she's the one who makes those connections, because it's really hard for a farmer to know. They have such limited time to find a new market, and it's hard to cold call, especially if you're farming out in the middle of nowhere. You chose that profession for a reason. You don't necessarily want to go out there and walk into someone's kitchen and say, hey, do you need some food?

PATTY CANTRELL: So, we're trying to be that relationship builder. We also have a local food promotion program where we have a food value chain coordinator, who basically tries to make a lot of those connections too. So, through our farm to school and food value chain coordination, we're really trying to do a lot of market matching and developing and bridging those relationships that farmers don't have time to make. I'll say one other thing about the farm to school money and also farm to food bank money, the Biden administration actually put in quite a lot of funding in the American Rescue Plan to improve food systems. Two of the programs that were developed out of that money was the Local Food Procurement Assistance Program, and the Local Food for Schools Program. They're two different programs. Local Food Purchasing Assistance Program is actually available to every single state, and, to my knowledge hopefully every single state has taken advantage of this because it was an allocation based on the state of money available for pantries and food banks to purchase local food.

PATTY CANTRELL: The emphasis was on sourcing from under-served farmers and under-served farmers is a broad definition, that includes beginning farmers, it includes veterans, it includes socially disadvantaged, which is minority farmers, and it also includes limited resource farmers. So, in the state of Missouri we got $6,000,000. The state department that applied for it, because that was the only eligible entity, was a state department, got $6,000,000 and it's currently being distributed to different organizations that are then going to be able to purchase from farmers directly and get it to people in low income families. So, that's a $6,000,000 injection into the local food purchasing. That's just one of the programs. The other program is the Local Food for Schools Program, on which we're also working with the Department of Education. West Central has played a key and pivotal role in trying to help bridge these connections, because we understand food systems and the challenges ahead for these organizations who have never done any of this before.

PATTY CANTRELL: They've never purchased local food from farmers, and so they're like deer in the headlights and we're like, hey, we can help you. So, the Local Food for Schools Program is around, I think it's $2,000,000. And so, we're basically helping them develop an application process for the schools, and then we have a resource list for the schools once they actually get the money to find farmers to buy from. Now it's about helping these farmers get access to that market and making sure that they're not used and abused. I hate to say it that way, but I think sometimes people think, oh, you have food, I'm just going to buy it from you and here, I'm going to inject, I'm going to buy, buy, buy, buy, and then all of a sudden I disappear.


PATTY CANTRELL: Right? And that farmer is kind of left, well, wow, that was a huge client for me and now they're gone. It's a little problematic. I mean, the money is a little problematic in that way because it's just a one-off thing. It wasn't the American Rescue Plan. It's not a stable funding item. These are programs that could be, though and I think that's part of the thing. This is like a pilot. I hope they're thinking this way, and who knows with the different administrations? That's what's frustrating about politics. If a different administration takes over, that program is just gone. If you look at the farm bill, which is a farm bill reauthorization year and the farm bill affects every single human in the United States, and animal actually in the United States and also a lot of our natural ag land and all of our land in the United States.

PATTY CANTRELL: So, those are opportunities to really push our congress to say, hey, you really need to invest in local food systems, you need to invest in our specialty crop industry. Our plates, and my plate, is supposed to be half vegetable, fruit kind of thing, right? And those are called specialty crops. If you look at all the subsidies that get given out in the United States, over half go to the grain industry and less than 1% goes to the specialty crop industry. So, where are we putting our priorities? It says it right in the numbers, and yet we're supposed to be eating all these fruits and vegetables, which we should, and everyone should have access to them, too. It's not just the wealthy that get to be healthy. It should be everybody.

KAYTE YOUNG: And especially in the Midwest, farm country, this could be a place where we're really producing a lot of those, instead of having to rely on shipping them across the country or shipping them from other countries, to actually have it, it's fresher, it's more nutrient rich, all of it.


KAYTE YOUNG: And supporting the local farm communities.

PATTY CANTRELL: The issue with consolidation in our ag industry has become really problematic, and the National Farmers Union has campaigned, and Missouri Farmers Union is working on it, for fairness for farmers. A farmer nowadays gets about 10 to 12 cents on every dollar spent on food. It's between 10 and 12 cents. It used to be 50. That margin has become slimmer and slimmer and part of that is because of aggregation. 85% of the meat industry is controlled and operated by four companies. So, when you have that happening, that's not a democratic capitalist system. That is a consolidated, controlled system, and they can do what they want with pricing and with regulation and they have lobbyists in Washington every single day.

KATIE NIXON: Working conditions.

PATTY CANTRELL: I'm not saying that they're the devil or anything like that, but they have control, and what they do with that control is not up to us. They decide what's on our supermarket shelf. We don't decide that. But small farmers respond to consumer needs. They respond to what consumers want and they diversify our food systems so all of our eggs are not in one basket. [LAUGHS]

PATTY CANTRELL: That points to the larger economy, too. New Growth is working to support rural entrepreneurship, rural communities, and that includes our food and farm entrepreneurs. Evidence of the demand and need for really working with small businesses is evident, I think, in what we've been able to do just in the past couple years of adding micro financing to what's available to people. Just starting up our micro enterprise operation we've made, in two years, about 70 loans, nearly $700,000, and now, because of that, we're getting more capital out of the US Small Business Administration. We are an approved micro lender, so now we have more capital, but our partners that we work with that send us clients and things in this rural area, we have our small business development centers. They have one person covering multiple counties, and she said we've really tripled our production, in a way, by being able to have micro financing available to entrepreneurs that wouldn't have gone anywhere with their business plan.

PATTY CANTRELL: You give them a business plan but if they cannot get a bank loan, they're not going into business. So, this is a really important need everywhere, in urban rural areas. Taking that as an important thing to invest in is something that we're not doing enough of in this country because you can see it in the data that shows the number of start-ups in the US has just fallen by half, literally, since the 1970s. Start-ups are the dynamics of our economy and small businesses are the primary employers and the source of innovation and businesses, and because we have focused so much on the easy wins, the big established companies or the big food companies, it's easy to throw money at that and think we're getting something. But we're not. We just assume that all that other stuff, all those micro-organisms in the soil of our economy are just going to grow but we need to cultivate them just like we do in the soil for our farm.

PATTY CANTRELL: That should be a huge policy priority, and again, more than one time economic recovery stuff. Even at the state level, we were at the state legislature recently and there's just not a lot for small businesses, because I think they think it's just naturally going to go on. But the more we ignore it, the more of a wasteland our rural communities are becoming.

KAYTE YOUNG: That's Patty Cantrell of New Growth Community Development Corporation, organized by West Central Missouri Community Action Agency. I'm also in conversation with Katie Nixon, who is the food systems director with New Growth and West Central Missouri Community Action. After a break, we'll talk about how the pandemic brought to light the importance of local food systems and perhaps changed policy and funding commitments for these types of programs. Also, stay tuned for the part where Patty and Katie school me on what's problematic about my dream to simply have all the local produce available at every mega grocery store in town. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG: Kayte Young here, this is Earth Eats. Let's return to my conversation with Katie Nixon and Patty Cantrell of New Growth Community Development Corporation.

KAYTE YOUNG: Do you think what we all went through in those early days of the pandemic, with shutdowns and food supply chains and stuff, really was a bit of a wake up call for people about our local food systems? Do you feel like there's been a change in that, or were you guys already going full on before that happened?

KATIE NIXON: Well, we were going full on. We were going full on in a machine that was cogging away, especially with trying to help farmers scale up into wholesale, because there was a huge demand from some of the high-end wholesale people we were working with, and most of those clients were office cafeterias. There was quite a lot of office cafeterias in Kansas City that were just loving the product coming out of the Kansas City food hub, and overnight they were all closed. So, that was 80% of the food hub's business, was gone. So, obviously for us, the 2020, 2021, as a farmer, as a food hub, as a consumer, was just a rollercoaster and we're still trying to recover emotionally from all that. You get pulled in 10,000 different directions. We're trying to support our farmers, because mental health in farming is a huge issue, but that's another topic.

KATIE NIXON: We have to look at where we are now to make sure, to readjust, and we are readjusting. And the market is recovering and we're seeing where the demand is, but it was absolutely a wake up call for everybody, and I see that, as a result, our politicians are stepping up a little bit. They are making this money available. It is a one-off pool, and it is competitive, and it means that a lot of the organizations that didn't get the money are still left behind. Under-resourced organizations that don't have grant writing departments or whatever, minority led, often left aside, still haven't gotten the resources they might need. But there are also organizations getting good support through this surge of interest in creating a better food system. The USDA did have an open comment period about our food system and the logistics going on, and there were over 1,000 comments. Out of those comments, I know one of the people who read every single one of those comments and she told me they were listened to, they were collated, they were given as a report and out of those comments came this opportunity.

KAYTE YOUNG: Kayte Young here, this is Earth Eats. Let's return to my conversation with Katie Nixon and Patty Cantrell of New Growth Community Development Corporation.

KATIE NIXON: An application to do that, that came directly out of that comment period from people who were concerned about our local food systems and logistics. So, that may be one good flower that came out, that grew out of the pandemic, let's have a look at our food system a little more closely here and let's really support developing it. Because what happens is after trying to run a food hub for seven years, it's not profitable, from a capitalist standpoint, because we're not jumping in with a huge loan with venture capitalist and trying to disrupt the system. We're building a sustainable cooperative model which takes time. It takes intention to have the right markets for our farmers, not just any market, the right market, cultivating the right people to be part of that, and we're building slowly until we've been able to find the resources we need to do that. Hopefully in a few years we can be solvent, but it couldn't have been done without extra help, because it's based on social sustainability, environmental sustainability.

KATIE NIXON: And then you get to the economic sustainability, whereas in a lot of these systems all we're focused on is the economics. People get left behind, environment gets left behind. We don't want a world like that. That's not what we're trying to build.

KAYTE YOUNG: We do not have a food hub where I live, and I would really love to hear just an explanation of what the Kansas City food hub is, what it's like.

KATIE NIXON: I appreciate that question because I think a lot of times I take for granted that people know what a food hub is. A food hub is different from an aggregator, distributor because it is farmer focused, and it's typically local food. There are all different kinds of food hubs, from non-profit to a B corporation, to an actual cooperative, which is what the Kansas City food hub is, which is member owned and member run, to just an LLC, and everything in between, that you can probably think of. So, it really is about working with the farmer supply and finding the correct markets and then the food hub is typically the logistics person in between, making the deliveries happen, making the orders happen, invoicing, collecting bills, paying farmers, all the things that farmers already do, but it's like another market outlet.

KATIE NIXON: I know Iowa has a nice network of food hubs going on up there and they collaborate with each other. Kansas City does not, really. We just have the Kansas City food hub. There are some other smaller aggregation things going on with other farmers. There's also Good Natured Family Farms, which is an alliance of farmers that is in Kansas City and one of the first food hubs, really. But we are, like I said, farmer owned and farmer run. There's about 30 members, voting members of the food hub. We list our products on the website, and then right now, the buyers are looking at what's up there, what the farmers listed. They make an order, so they can buy from 20 farmers on one site and get one delivery and one invoice.

KAYTE YOUNG: So, the problem that it solves is that retail, or restaurants I guess, but stores can purchase local food without having to go directly to a farmer, or maybe a farmer has not as many tomatoes as they might need, but three farmers would have enough tomatoes?

KATIE NIXON: Correct, yes. So, let's say, one of our biggest customers is a school, and we actually serve 45 schools and this is a new thing. This came out of the pandemic as well, schools were saying, we want local food now. So, the demand went up. For example, one school district wanted 400lbs of lettuce a week. In the winter. We're winter growers, and I know many of the other farmers in the food hub are winter growers but they don't necessarily have the capacity to do 400lbs a week, or even 50lbs a week. But five of us together almost got there, right? Next year, we're going to grow even more lettuce because we see the demand and want to meet the demand. So, we all packed our separate boxes and get them to the food hub, and then the food hub delivers.

KATIE NIXON: That school doesn't have the patience or the time, and that is not any condemnation on that school. They don't have the time to work with five different farmers and help those farmers understand the need and the supply, but the food hub does. We have paid staff to do that, and that is where you can build a supply chain but you have to have the people working in there. You have to have the food value chain coordinator, you have to have the food hub logistics people, you've got to have the delivery driver. You've got to have the truck. I mean, there's all this infrastructure that is needed.

KAYTE YOUNG: And also is there a location? Is there cold storage?

KATIE NIXON: Yes. This particular food hub model, we used to be sub hubs, where we would just utilize farmers' cold storage and pay the farmer for that cold storage that they already have, which is a great model, but it didn't really work logistically very well.

KAYTE YOUNG: Sounds complicated.

KATIE NIXON: COVID broke us in that model. So, we actually did get a warehouse where they can deliver product before the delivery date, and that works out okay, because our membership wants their infrastructure to be utilized, and we would like to utilize it. We just don't know exactly what that could look like. I wanted to say one other thing about the market, that the food hub reaches. When the food hub started, there was a little push back. Oh, you're trying to steal local food's market, right? When the farmer was saying, it's my market, I have control over my market. That perception was a little misguided because when we did our feasibility study, it showed that there was $125,000,000 in unmet demand for local food. Well, you're not just going to tell that unmet demand to go to the farmers market or join the CSA. Those aren't good outlets for the market that we were looking at.

KATIE NIXON: This is a new market that is not being tapped into, not being served. Farmers markets are great. I think everyone should go to a farmers market, but they're not going to. In reality, it's 9% of the population if we're lucky that goes to a farmers market. Then CSA numbers are even lower. So, how does the farmer then expand without having to kill themselves going to another farmers market, and another CSA? They have to have a balance. So, over the years, my farm personally, we've found a balance of 50/50, 50% wholesale, 50% retail. And that's a pretty good balance also for food hubs to have, too, in terms of getting a retail customer, and having a wholesale customer. But that middle market, that middle wholesale market is really what we're going after. And it is not one being served right now.

KAYTE YOUNG: Right. And I also just think, if you really want to change the food system and make it more locally based, it's not going to happen through farmers markets. It's got to be institutions like the school. My dream personally is to have the shelves of major grocery stores, like Kroger and I don't know if you guys have that, stocked with local foods so that everyone has access to it without having to go to some specialty thing or know about a culture of local food, all that.

PATTY CANTRELL: Food hubs are kind of an indicator of how this has grown and will continue to grow, because the start of the local food movement, 20 or 30 years ago, the rallying cry is cut out the middle man. Let's go direct. And farmers markets grew, and so the whole direct to consumer market. But it has grown to the point where we do need some middle men and women, and the food hub is a new kind of intermediary that takes into account getting proceeds back to the farm versus just making sure it's a good price back to the farm. So, it's a new intermediary for that local and regional food system to serve all that new demand, wholesale demand, things like that. So, that kind of infrastructure will grow and that's part of the step of getting to that point where we can have more of this in grocery stores and things like that.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yes. I think that direct to consumer model only works for a certain kind of consumer, and I think that's what I am interested in. It's expanding to general population. Everyone can begin to access this, and kids in schools, and somebody who is going to a food pantry, and somebody who is just going to the regular grocery store.

PATTY CANTRELL: But retaining that connection to the farm, that's part of the issue, is understanding where your food comes from, and that's what food hubs do, too. We keep that identity there, because erasing all that is how we can end up not knowing about what happens with that food, and having that value there, as part of the process. That's why we call it a food value chain. It's a supply chain but it's based on the values that you have as far as how the land is treated, how people are treated, what kind of nutrition content is in your food, all those things people up and down from the farmer to the consumer have an interest in. So, this system that we're developing is about addressing those values and making sure they happen. And that's what food hubs do in a variety of models. Those are the different ways they do it.

KAYTE YOUNG: Right. Well, thank you. That's a really important point. I think you don't want to erase that connection even if it's not I'm going up to a farm stand to purchase from a farmer. I still can have a connection to where this food comes from, and who is growing it, and how they're growing it, and how they're treating the land, and how they're treating their workers or their animals or all of that.

KATIE NIXON: It's important that they have connection to the farmer, and that's why really KC food hub is very proud of being farmer owned and farmer run and that's on our tag line. But even other organizations that might just be an LLC or something, they can also be very good at telling that farmer's story and communicating some of the issues that go on. There's a funny story. We worked with KC Healthy Kids, which is a big partner on a lot of things that we do, but they also have some money to buy local food from the food hub and get it to the early childhood education centers that they work with. They bought a case of eggs from our farm, and on our farm label we have our phone number and our name, actually, next to our phone number. I got a text one day, and it said, what does it mean to get a green chicken egg? Or a green egg? I was thinking, who is this person?

KATIE NIXON: And after a few texts, I realize, this is a child who has texted me off of the box of eggs that they got at school, and they didn't understand. They'd never seen a green chicken egg before, which is lain by an Araucana chicken, who just has a green-shelled egg, right? It wasn't green on the inside or anything, it just had a green shell, because there's lots of different chicken, lots of different colored eggs. It was just the funniest conversation that I think I've ever had via text, and they wanted to know all this stuff and I was saying, okay, well, I've got to go now, but you can definitely eat those eggs.

KAYTE YOUNG: Talk about direct to farm communication. That's awesome. That's so great.

KATIE NIXON: I do want to mention one thing we are working on with KC Healthy Kids, and that is a grant initiative through the USDA, fairly new. It's called the Regional Food Systems Partnership Program, and KC Healthy Kids got a planning grant to do a food assessment, a food systems assessment across the region. They targeted certain counties because we didn't have enough money to do all of the counties. One of the counties was St Clair which is a county that we have at West Central and New Growth, and where we often host our farm to fork event, which is our annual farm to fork summit event that we do. But we're working with them to do a food system assessment, and then a food system action plan for the region.

KATIE NIXON: The reason that's important, it's not just a report that we want to get done and get money for, but it's important to have priorities, because, like we said at the beginning, where do you start with a broken food system? There are so many entry points, but there are also so many organizations working on different projects. If we can all figure out some common ground to work on together, we could really make some progress. So, that's where this food system partnership program that is happening, New Growth is part of it, part of the leadership team and then we have an advisor committee, and we have finished up our assessment. It's available online on the KC Healthy Kids website. Then we'll be coming up with our action plan, and then be going after an implementation grant to really put that action plan into play.

PATTY CANTRELL: When I looked at this, I was just thinking about our conservation program with Natural Resources Conservation Service. Those are funds that we're using to try and reach farmers and educate about new practices, and I think this kind of education and also introduction to the consumer values that they can grow for and market for, that's similar to just general small business resources. There's not enough of that out there and definitely applaud the money that comes through some organizations like that to make that happen, but in general that's part of the system, having those resources for farmers to even explore opportunities, because making a transition or some of our farms maybe in the commodity world, but a lot of times it's the young generation that wants to try something. So, building up that trial space and the ramping up, it does take time, so those are really important resources, and I just wanted to underline that that's a real need as well, and part of what the food assistance program is doing.

KATIE NIXON: Yes, and one of our focuses in the coming years is really going to be on actually having a business technical assistance person specifically for agriculture, because we feel like, especially in the lending field, lenders don't understand necessarily what a diversified farm is or what it does or what even the market looks like. So, we're going to be doing a few tiers, educating the lenders, hopefully, about what it means to lend to a small farm and what kind of market access they would have and what that client could look like, and how they might reach that client. Then also, for that small farmer, what is available to them in terms of financial resources, business planning and things like that, because we do have this Women's Business Center. It's great. It's any business that wants to work with the Women's Business Center. But I think when you have a specific person for farming and agriculture, it shows them that you value that really highly, and that they're going to get a spot. They're going to get heard, they're going to get help. So, we're excited to have that focus in the coming years.

PATTY CANTRELL: And to be that resource to lenders and stuff, because the diversified farm has a diversity of business models and markets, and, so, this person is going to be regionally plugged in and help them evaluate businesses that come to them, in terms of, what kind of cash flow should you expect, what do we know about these markets and who is in them, and that sort of thing? We want to really partner with these other organizations to get more familiar with and support them in taking steps to support our food and farm entrepreneurs.

KAYTE YOUNG: As we were wrapping up our conversation, I asked if they had any fun stories to tell me about their work.

KATIE NIXON: Well, there's a great story that my food value chain coordinator Cristina Jopling likes to tell. It's one of her big wins as a food value chain coordinator. She started visiting with and learning about this pecan business in Nevada, Missouri. They grow Missouri native pecans, and they're a delicious little pecan. They're not as big as the English pecans, and they have a little bit more sweetness to them, and they have both organic and conventional and they sell pecans across the country in packaged form. But they're always looking for new clients, and she also happened to do a very hard visit, which was to the Christopher Elbow Chocolatier Plant in Kansas City to find potential new outlets for these pecans. She met with Christopher Elbow and his team and gave him a sample of these pecans, and they were very interested in having them for their specialty chocolates, this one particular variety. So, she made the connection, they started giving them a try and now Christopher Elbow Chocolates is a strong client of North Missouri pecan growers.

KATIE NIXON: So, that's a really cool value chain connection. The Elbow organization really values local, they're an internationally known chocolate company, and then this Nevada organization, they're farmers that work together. They have a processing plant down there to process pecans, and now it's a great new client and it's a great partnership.

PATTY CANTRELL: A value chain is like a supply chain, from the growing and the equipment and the processing and the retailing. All that is broken. That's why we have a broken food system for local and regional food, and so we need to connect those entrepreneurs and resources in that chain that are not connected right now. So, in the bigger system, you sell to a distributor and they've got all those connections, but we're trying to build new channels, new paths to market. It's really about new pathways, and in taking those steps, we have to connect people within that pathway. So, the chocolatier buying from the pecans, that's part of building this connection from the supplier to that product. It's a messy thing but it's a really important way to get businesses to work together. It's kind of a business to business connection. We've also worked with an Amish grower that needed some equipment to process these grains. We were able to find him equipment somewhere. So, we're working as a team to try to address the needs of those entrepreneurs.

KATIE NIXON: Yes, I think also in this food value chain, finding the right partners. It's not just, oh, you deliver things in a refrigerated truck, let's work with you. Well, that might not work out because you're not holding the same kind of values within the food system. You've got to find the right partners who really might have to go a little bit over and above to work with each other, but because they believe in creating a strong local food system, they will.

KAYTE YOUNG: So, is that where the word value comes in?

KATIE NIXON: Yes. It is, it is where the word value comes in, because you're not just creating an economic transaction. You're creating a value transaction, which is economic at its base, but is also based on social and sometimes environmental, whatever part of the supply chain has a strong value on environment sustainability, and they don't know where to find the right connection, we can help in that food value chain to make a good connection where both parties are interested because they share a same value. For example, our farm to school specialist, she found a farmer in Warsaw, which is a small community, to supply the local school. He also wanted a new market but he was also really excited about serving the schools and, so, went over and above probably what he would have done for another market, to find other farmers to work with and actually supply that school. So, it's about finding the good connections that really result in something better than expected because the people are committed from a value perspective, not just a transactional perspective.

PATTY CANTRELL: But it also serves their self interest and that's really key. It's not like, let's just all do good things together. I have a business, I need to grow it, I have a self interest in this, but I am in this business. This business is serving a market that cares about this. The schools want this local food. There is no distribution available. I have to find people to work with. Our program is about trying to convene and connect those people to make that easier, all up and down the line. So, the example she gave of the farmer wanting to supply local schools, going out of his way to find some other farms in this rural area where there are no distributors for that is part of that. Then we are supporting them in making that school connection. So, it's really like a teamwork thing. How do we build this together to address what our businesses need and the market wants?

KAYTE YOUNG: Okay, yes. It also feels like it addresses something that you just touched on, and we can't probably go into it, but one of the problems is that people don't know where their food comes from, but I could also imagine from a producer perspective, from a farming perspective, you want to know where your food is going. So, I can imagine that farmer that was excited about their food going to the schools, that's lifting up their sense of purpose of what they're doing. "I'm feeding the kids in my community." And then that's addressing the mental health issues that can come up for farmers with all of the different challenges that they're facing, in just feeling like, "I'm a part of something and I'm a part of my community." And I just find that touching.

PATTY CANTRELL: We have a food value chain coordinator because there are these spots of people doing that, but can we have a broader regional view and keep everybody connected and supported? So, food value chain coordinators make connections. We also try to find resources. We might learn that they need a piece of equipment to make that happen, right? We're on the job of helping them move that forward and connecting with the business center and resources. So it's again, it's just like the food hub doesn't leave it on the farm to contact every restaurant, our program is about, okay, we're making connections, we're supporting that, and we're going to help coordinate that and support you and fill those gaps, because it really requires broader arms around it also.

KATIE NIXON: That's why we have lots of different partners, and we try to know what's going on all the time. We're in everybody's business, but one of the things that we've helped to do with the Missouri Department of Ag, they had some money to give to schools for a reimbursement for buying local food. This is different from the Local Food for Schools Program I was talking about earlier. This is just a $1,000 reimbursement. And they put it out there, and they didn't really get a lot of response, but we helped, saying, okay, we have schools that we work with, we're going to work with those individual schools and help them fill out the application, and get them that reimbursement. So, I think that sometimes it just takes this connector, and it's not a lot of money but it was there and it was being under utilized.

KAYTE YOUNG: Don't want to leave it on the table.

KATIE NIXON: Yes, so we're inserting ourselves into some of these conversations because we see where the connections can happen and hopefully we can make some inroads into creating more communication and collaboration. That's our goal.

PATTY CANTRELL: There really is a lot of interest, but just trying to reduce the frustration that people have. We had a great farm to fork summit, our fifth one this year, and a lot of producers and buyers coming there because they really want to feed people well, produce great things, build their local economies. So, it's really about building those relationships to make that happen, even with banks, in rural businesses. The credit score is not very much of a relationship with your borrower. It's just a number. So, we're trying to help develop that relationship with a business, so that they can meet those numbers down the road. We're in a transactional economy. We're trying to build that relationship part of it so that we have more small businesses in our rural communities addressing those gaps.

KAYTE YOUNG: More relational, less transactional. That sounds like a worthy goal to move towards.

KAYTE YOUNG: Well, thank you both so much for taking the time to talk with me. I really appreciate it.

KATIE NIXON: Yes. That's for coming to little town Bolivar, Missouri. [LAUGHS]

PATTY CANTRELL: Yes, West Central Missouri. Here we are between Springfield and Kansas City, and there's a lot going on in connecting with Midwest people all over. So, it's great to connect with all you in Indiana.

KAYTE YOUNG: Great. Thank you.

KAYTE YOUNG: That was Patty Cantrell with New Growth Community Development Corporation, organized by West Central Missouri Community Action Agency. We also spoke with Katie Nixon. She is a farmer, and she's the food systems director with New Growth and West Central Missouri Community Action.

KAYTE YOUNG: A quick update. Since we spoke in April of 2023, they have announced that the USDA has awarded $25,000,000 for a new five state Heartland regional foods business center. New Growth will co-lead the center, and it looks like Indiana will be included in the Great Lakes regional food business center. Hopefully we can learn more about that in a future episode. You can find links to Patty and Katie's work and learn more about the regional foods business center program on our website

KAYTE YOUNG: The Earth Eats team includes

Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Alexis Carvajal, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Daniella Richardson, Samantha Shemenaur, Payton Whaley and Harvest Public Media.

Special thanks this week to Patty Cantrell, Katie Nixon, and to Justine Lines for making the connection. The show is produced and edited by me, Kayte Young. Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey, and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Additional music on the show comes to us from Universal Production Music. Our executive producer is Eric Bolstridge

three women smiling at camera holding tomato, carton of brown eggs and a bunch of greens

Katie Nixon (New Growth Food Systems Director), Cristina Jopling (Food Value Chain Coordinator) and Jaclyn Carroll (Farm to School Coordinator) show off farm share local veggies and eggs they were packaging up to go out to low-income families. (Courtesy of New Growth)

“And that’s why we call it a food value chain. You know, it’s a supply chain but it’s based on the values that you have as far as how the land is treated, how people are treated, what kind of nutrition contents in your food–all those things [that] people up and down–from the farmer to the consumer have an interest in. And so, this system that we’re developing is about addressing those values and making sure they happen.”  --Patty Cantrell

This week on the show, an uplifting conversation about organizations and coalitions working together for stronger rural economies and robust local food systems. We talk about micro lending, food hubs, farm-to-school programs and more.

Our guests are Katie Nixon and Patty Cantrell with West Central Missouri Community Action Agency and New Growth Community Development Corporation. Katie is a farmer herself and she's the New Growth Food Systems Director. She has just been named as Co-Director for new USDA funded Heartland Regional Foods Business Center. The Heartland Center will serve Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Iowa. Patty Cantrell is the Outreach and Development Director for New Growth. 

Hear all about the great work they are doing enhancing rural economies and strengthening local food systems in this week's episode. 

Music on this episode

The Earth Eats theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.

Additional music on this episode from Universal Production Music.


The Earth Eats’ team includes: Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Alexis Carvajal, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Daniella Richardson, Samantha Shemenaur, Payton Whaley and Harvest Public Media.

Earth Eats is produced, engineered and edited by Kayte Young. Our executive producer is Eric Bolstridge

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