By Natasha Anderson
The Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) has launched a new initiative, Appalachian Farms Feeding Families, to get fresh, healthy food to people who need it while fairly compensating farmers. Through this program, ASAP facilitates direct connections between farms and relief efforts that might not otherwise be logistically feasible and helps to offset costs.
“As soon as we realized that farmers markets and restaurants were going to be disrupted by COVID-19 we began planning how to help them shift to meet the new market requirements,” says ASAP executive director Charlie Jackson.
ASAP recognized that new options needed to be developed quickly in order to lessen the problem of fewer markets for farmers just as they were beginning to hit their high production season. Soon, farm labor job loss would add to the already growing problem of unemployment, loss of money to rural communities and loss of food availability. A mismatch between supply chains and farms that do direct and restaurant sales would occur due to differences in volume and variety of products produced by farmers who sell to wholesale grocers versus those who sell direct to restaurants.
“This is an unbridgeable gap,” says Jackson. “It was never possible, except in the case of a few farms, to make the shift from direct and restaurant sales to wholesale for grocery.”
In addition to helping farmers find other ways to sell through training, technical assistance and grants, ASAP focused on getting food from local farms into food assistance programs. In order to do this, the organization raised money through its Appalachian Grown Farmer Relief Fund and began discussions with MANNA FoodBank regarding logistics and community needs. Jackson quickly realized that food pantries and food preparation sites needed products delivered directly to them, rather than coming in through the MANNA warehouse to be distributed. The presence of relatively small pantry programs and meal preparation sites in every WNC county, and ASAP’s connection with farms in every county, created an opportunity to match any size farm with a food relief program.
“Many farms were already donating to local relief agencies and we want to celebrate and build on that,” says Jackson. “For farms that can give, we want to support and help pay for added costs like packaging. For those who have lost markets, we can pay for the cost of the products delivered to the food relief site.”
The first phase of the project focuses on rural communities, which are farther from centralized food resources. After assessing relief sites’ needs, ASAP contracts with a farm or farms to supply food.
For Joe Sumpter of Red Hill Farm in Glenwood, the program will provide another outlet to help him and his wife Blair further their goals of moving fresh local food to their community and earning their living exclusively from farming. “We both work full-time jobs,” says Sumpter. “Like many other farmers we just want to continue to perpetuate our dream of living out the life we hold dear to our hearts.”
The additional income from farming helped the Sumpters stay afloat while Blair, a dental hygienist, was out of work for seven weeks due to COVID-19. Because she and Joe, an electrical lineman, were able to plant their spring and summer crops as planned they expect to have a reasonable amount of product throughout the year.
ASAP works with more than 600 Appalachian Grown farmers in WNC and will prioritize those that can best meet the needs of the relief agencies. “We could easily work with 100 relief organizations and 30–50 farms,” says Jackson.
Beacon of Hope Services, in Marshall, and Spanish Seventh-day Adventist Church, in Hendersonville, are two relief organizations that have partnered with ASAP. Both report drastic increases in need since the pandemic began. According to Beacon of Hope executive director and CEO Jessie Koontz, the organization went from serving 685 families in February to more than 987 in May, including 221 new families that have signed up since Madison County posted the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” mandate in March. Pastor Rubi Pimentel reports an increase at Spanish Seventh-day Adventist Church from 200 families per month seeking assistance prior to COVID-19 to 400 since.
“The program lessens our financial burden, allowing us to restructure our thin finances to other areas of need,” says Pimentel. “And community members benefit from knowing they are not alone and that there are people interested in giving a hand.”
ASAP has reached out to other organizations including all WNC Head Start Centers and senior dining sites from the NC Child and Adult Care Food Program and child care centers that are part of the Growing Minds Farm to School program. Outreach will continue as farms offer products that allow individual matches with agencies.
Farms and relief agencies who would like to participate should start by filling out interest forms on ASAPConnections.org. Support for the Appalachian Farms Feeding Families program comes from the Appalachian Grown Farmer Relief Fund. Donations may be made at ASAPConnections.org.