Groups work to support local farms and access to food during COVID-19
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Nonprofit organization Local Food Hub has partnered with several local farms for a weekly drive-through farmers market. It also has coordinated with the Food Justice Network to incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables to its ongoing efforts to provide food to communities in Charlottesville.
“Speaking specifically for Local Food Hub, we were founded with the dual mission of supporting farmers and increasing community access to local food,” said Portia Boggs, the Hub’s communications director. “We feel in light of everything with COVID-19, that mission is more important and relevant than ever.”
Last week, Local Food Hub hosted its first drive-thru market at Rivanna River Co. that featured Bellair Farm, Caromont Farm, Little Hat Creek Farm, Radical Roots and The Pie Chest.
“Schools and universities are closed, and that is a huge market for local farmers,” Boggs said. “Restaurants are another huge market for farmers. They are either closing or reducing their operations so much so that the market is drying up there as well.”
Planned for Wednesdays, Charlottesville-area residents can order their food in advance and drive up to receive them without leaving their cars to practice social distancing during the pandemic.
“We are looking at this becoming a weekly thing and expanding with another market and set of vendors on Friday and making that a weekly thing, as well,” she said. “The drive-through market is the most direct way we are supporting our farmers, but we are also working with our farmers to find as many markets as possible.”
Boggs said, Local Food Hub also has a blog on its site that can connect residents to Community Supported Agriculture programs that they can sign up for. By committing a certain amount of funds up front, residents can receive set amounts of produce from a local farm for a certain number of weeks. CSAs are a way for farms to know how much they need to grow and have the startup funding they will need to help grow the crops.
“Farms are businesses, too, and operate on such tiny margins,” Boggs explained. “All small businesses do, but farms take so much planning. If a farm isn’t doing well now and can’t plant as much now, it impacts their production for the full year.”
Boggs notes that as COVID-19 spreads, food brought in from other regions could become harder to access.
For climate-minded people, purchasing locally-grown food that travels less far to come to them, it’s also a way to have an impact on emissions.
Food security for families
During this governor-mandated and doctor-recommended time of social distancing and sheltering in place as much as possible, not everyone can do so with the same amount of ease or comfort. Local Food Hub continues to work with other food-based organizations as a member of the Food Justice Network to help continue to bring equity into the conversation as well.
“Food access is a big topic of conversation — students who rely on free or [reduced-price] lunch are no longer getting that like they used to; the elderly or compromised can’t leave their homes,” Boggs said. “It’s something a lot of organizations in Charlottesville are working on and doing a good job on.”
Shantell Bingham, who runs the Charlottesville Food Justice Network, echoed how the various organizations that share overlapping or similar goals are adjusting operations to best and most safely serve the community during the pandemic.
“A lot of the organizations that have been on the frontlines have been working to rapidly adapt their operations to respond in a public health crisis,” Bingham said.
She noted how the PB&J Fund shifted from being a children’s culinary kitchen to offering bagged meals to be dropped off in neighborhoods.
“It’s now like a mobile food pantry, pop-up style,” Bingham said.
While the Food Justice Network and others previously have had a focus on helping to close food insecurity, Bingham says that COVID-19 strains those communities further.
“Prior to coronavirus, we had a high food insecurity rate in Charlottesville,” Bingham said. “We are coming into this pandemic with about 1 in 6 residents, or about 7,600 people, that have food insecurity. Now [COVID-19 is] exacerbating a lot of inequities that have already existed.”
As a collaborative the Food Justice Network works to support efforts like Local Food Hub’s Fresh Farmarcy program to include fresh produce from local farms in a “CSA-style delivery” for families in low-income neighborhoods like Westhaven and Southwood. There are plans for expansion at South First Street.
It is also stepping in — in collaboration with some other organizations and restaurants — to make sure that children in families that have relied on some of the child’s meals coming during the school day, still have access to food during what would have been their official Spring Break (April 6-12). There will be food access points for meal pickup in five key neighborhoods in the city, Bingham said.
Bingham also said that through organizational collaboration, there are ways to build a better infrastructure to sustainably help each organization responding to COVID-19 food insecurity. That way, they can keep helping the communities they serve long-term.
“Some of the long term plans are how we can support our farms locally? How can we continue to leverage our local farms in directly supporting the families that we work with?” Bingham said. “We are putting together a strategy for that so we can apply for funds together to get those things supported.”
Farm security for farmers
As some Charlottesville-area residents face food insecurity — with local farm organizations and nonprofits stepping in to help — local farms face insecurity on how they will operate beyond the pandemic.
The Virginia Foodshed Capital is a lender that has provided finances to small farms and food businesses around the state that don’t often qualify for traditional financing. Virginia Foodshed Capital has a small loan program with 0% interest.
“Once the COVID-19 crisis hit, we took the immediate step to relieve all borrowers of their repayments until further notice,” said Executive Director and founder Michael Reilly. “We figured this was the least we can do, but it’s not nearly enough to support are local farms, which struggle to be profitable even in good times. Many of them have lost significant income from the closing of restaurants and the disruption to farmers markets and brick-and-mortar markets.”
In the meantime, the organization recently encouraged continued donations and announced new loans available for some farms near Fredericksburg and in Charlotte County. It also contributed to the Emergency Food and Farm Fund, a partner of the Local Food Hub, that helps purchase food from regional farms for delivery where food insecurity is heightened by the COVID-19 crisis.
Reilly called Local Food Hub’s drive-through market one of “so many examples of the collective determination to open up access to local food.”
“Many farmers have had to quickly pivot to online ordering, home delivery and collaborative markets like [Local Food Hub].” he said. “Making customers aware of these efforts is difficult because everything is so new, and under development.”
He added that Virginia Foodshed Capital is working on a Food Map that it hopes to have live on its website soon as an additional resource for people.
“This crisis is underscoring something those of us working in local food systems have known for a long time: A strong local food system is absolutely vital to the resiliency and durability of our communities,” Reilly said. “We are desperate to get through this crisis with as many of our small farms intact as possible. Then hopefully we can use the lessons learned to devote more attention, resources and respect to local food as the best way to build collective immunity. While this crisis will hopefully one day end, the impacts of a changing climate threaten to cause many of the same types of disruptions in the years to come.”