NC Farm to Senior Services – the Start of a New Season

— Written By Becky Bowen
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Figuring out how to measure impacts of a new multi-year project can be tricky. Especially early on in the project. Orientation meetings, primarily ones that introduce team members to each other and the grant objectives, fill the first year. Project staff are typically hired in this period, assessment and evaluation materials are developed, and project management regularly convenes to make sure tasks are assigned and progress is made towards the actual launch of the project. In years two and three and beyond, small victories occur as a result of all the foundational work laid in the first year, but unfortunately, most times, change comes slowly and quantifiable impacts hardly make a dent in the issue being addressed.

Slow moving projects give rise to the challenge of gaining and keeping the cooperation and interest of critical stakeholders. Local food system development, in particular, requires time and cannot be moved forward without input and support from a variety of local entities who have some connection to food. Local food councils, higher ed, nonprofits, government agencies, consumers, retail outlets, restaurants, food hubs, food manufacturers, economic development officials, and of course, farmers, all comprise the body of interested persons and entities who move the needle towards more local food consumption. Institutions, like universities, school systems, and child care centers, also play an important role in local food system development as they often provide daily meals to a significant number of people who frequent their campuses.

The Center for Environmental Farming Systems has a number of initiatives aimed to generate more local food purchases by institutional buyers. Today we will spotlight NC Farm to Senior Services. Now in its second year, NC Farm to Senior Services aims to improve institutional procurement policy, address procurement challenges of county-based institutions, provide resources and technical assistance for farmers, and support increased availability of local foods for older adults in North Carolina.

In Year 1, the Farm to Senior Services project created and connected three county-based teams comprised of Extension agents, food councils, farmers, food hubs or aggregators, and senior meal service institutional buyers. The project team selected McDowell, Scotland, and Warren Counties as pilots based on their geographic variation, existence of established food councils, and USDA designation as low income/low access areas. A total of 17 representatives of these pilots participated in the project in its first year through periodic project networking events, in county level site visits and meetings, and by hosting project-funded interns. Total stakeholders served through the project‘s first year included 370 older adults (primarily home meal delivery), and over 32 farmers who reported increased revenue as a result of sales to food hubs working with senior meal service institutional buyers. Most senior centers participating in the project provided food box delivery funded through federal, regional, and local granting organizations.

County teams reported several challenges to increasing their level of local food procurement in the first year. A major challenge, attributed to the pandemic, was the closure of congregate eating sites; however, funding became available for emergency food boxes in 2021, which resulted in pickups or deliveries to seniors and more demand from local food hubs. Another challenge reported by participants was the rising cost of fresh vegetables and local meat, making it difficult to stay within prescribed budgets. All participants agreed that more pre-season crop planning by farmers and menu planning by senior centers was needed to achieve their common objectives of providing fresh, local food to older adults. Better communication between the institution and the food hub was also deemed critical to the growth of the program. All parties also expressed concern about the sustainability of emergency food box programs once the pandemic becomes less of a concern and grant funding dries up.

A major win for all three pilots was the introduction of a project-funded supply chain intern to their programs. In Scotland County the intern supported the marketing efforts of the Sandhills Ag Innovation Center, the food hub that serves Scotland and surrounding counties, through website development and social media activity. In McDowell County the intern developed onsite logistics to fill food box orders and connected an online ordering system with senior food services for direct orders from local farmers. In Warren County the intern conducted a cash flow analysis to research how to scale up production. Another noteworthy accomplishment of one of the pilots included innovative frozen meal production.

As the Farm to Senior Services project completes its second year, attention will be focused on specific trainings that address funding strategies for local food procurement and how the program benefits the health of older adults. In addition, county team members will be offered training around racial equity in the food system. This will create a shared language among the teams around equity, analyze historical and current barriers that may disproportionately affect specific groups in the population, and incorporate explicit and measurable goals of racial equity into programming. Finally, interns will again build capacity within the county teams to facilitate more farmer collaboration and better communication with senior food services.

Change may be slow, but even small actions supported by key players can lead to big changes over time. The NC Farm to Senior Services project looks forward to building on its multi-stakeholder approach to address system local food procurement challenges, increase availability of local foods for older adults, and expand markets for food hubs and farmers. Stay tuned.