The recent Department of Agriculture announcement that it would allocate $34.3 million to support local food systems was met with skepticism by many in the sustainable farming and food justice movements. Many organizations doing food systems work in the most vulnerable communities find USDA grants too competitive, bureaucratic, short-term, and daunting to be worth the effort.
The USDA has historically been unsupportive, and even injurious, to sustainable local food systems, and has been criticized for subsidizing commodity crops, like corn and soybeans, which favors large-scale industrial farming and results in a market flooded with cheap processed foods. The agency has also been implicated in decades of discrimination against the nation’s most vulnerable farmers—African-Americans, Latinos, and women.
Still, those grassroots organizations that brave the federal application process to receive grants are enthusiastic about the farmers markets, training programs, and farmer cooperatives they have been able to support with this funding.
The $34.3 commitment will be distributed between four programs: $13.3 million to promote farmers markets, $11.9 million to promote local foods, $8.1 million in direct support for farmers markets, and $1 million for research.
The general consensus among grant recipients is that, yes, these funds are advancing food justice. They claim that these grants are fostering innovation in the food justice movement and enabling crucial projects.
In some cases, these federal funds are specifically supporting minority farmers. Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, a community development corporation working to revitalize Brooklyn, received a USDA local foods promotion grant to purchase farm produce from rural African-American farmers and provide that food to childcare centers. Black Oaks Center, in Chicago, used their federal funding to further develop their healthy food hub for African-American farmers, with training, capital, and infrastructure improvements. A food hub gives farmers the opportunity to aggregate their crop and market collaboratively. The farmer-led Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative is using their USDA funds to connect Latino and Hmong farmers with wholesale markets.
Lily Kesselman, director of the South Bronx Farmers Market, explains, “Farmers markets can be their own vehicle for food justice and democratic control. They offer the opportunity for residents to purchase locally grown produce from farmers themselves, and support family farms that care for the soil and environment.”
Training programs are being funded as well. Just Food, in New York City, has received eight USDA grants since 1997 to fund local and community food projects, such as the training and support of a network of 27 community-run farmers markets. Just Food also developed a marketing toolkit to help farmers connect to viable markets in the city and are working on creating a legal infrastructure that farmers markets and CSA programs can access to ease the administration of their work. Alumni of Just Food’s training programs have gone on to start their own successful farms and farmers markets.
While grant recipients report that the USDA civil servants tasked with technical assistance are exceptionally committed and helpful in the application and reporting process, many others voiced concerns about the program.
The application process, described as cumbersome and bureaucratic, favors applicants from medium-sized and large nonprofits, discouraging grassroots community groups from accessing federal resources.
“Small nonprofits often spend an excess of time in the preparation and authorization process, which can be very cumbersome, and writing a grant that will not have an award decision until six months or more later is very challenging,” found City Seed, a program that runs farmers markets in New Haven, Conn. Groups report applying three to eight times before receiving a grant award, and find it very difficult to navigate the process without a professional grant writer.
“Local food is not inherently more just or sustainable. It is simply more locally procured and consumed.”
USDA grants have a matching funds requirement and extensive reporting obligations, which smaller groups find impossible to meet. Jonah Vitale-Wolff, farmer and educator at Soul Fire Farm, where I work, in New York state, attended one webinar on the USDA grant process and decided not to apply. “Dealing with these grants is a full-time job, and I already have a full-time job doing the work on the ground,” he says.
Funding is typically restricted to a single year or one-time, multi-year projects; they do not fund ongoing work. Amy Blankstein, from Just Food, explains, “With a three-year grant for the Farm School NYC, we were able to ramp up fairly quickly. We hoped to get another round of funding, which didn’t come through, and we had to step back from the amount of support we were able to provide the program.” Funds are also distributed on a reimbursement basis, which can present cash flow challenges for smaller organizations.
While the USDA press office declined to comment for this article, Sarah Lambertson, who provides technical assistance to applicants through the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, offered her insights. She calls the grant process “daunting” and notes that very few applicants contact her from the poorest states in the nation, like Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, where people would benefit the most.
While important work is being funded through the agency’s local foods grants, it’s important to note that $34.3 million for local food is only a drop in the bucket of the USDA’s overall 2016 budget of $156 billion. Allocations for commodity crops will be $14.2 billion next year, plus $8.2 billion in crop insurance, both programs favoring conventional, industrial agriculture.
It is also necessary to understand that this funding is focused on “supply side” solutions. Simply increasing the amount of local food that is produced doesn’t ensure that everyone has the purchasing power to buy that food, explains Joshua Sbicca, an assistant sociology professor at Colorado State University. So long as people work in the food system without receiving a living wage, the underlying problems of poverty and inequality persist.
“Local food is not inherently more just or sustainable. It is simply more locally procured and consumed. While the USDA should be praised for its support of a range of local food initiatives, we should look very closely at who is receiving the money, how that money is being used, and what are the specific outcomes,” Sbicca says.
While many farmers and food justice activists are encouraged by increasing federal attention to local food, sustainability, and marginalized communities, there is still a long way to go. For lasting structural change, activists believe that the majority of the USDA budget needs to be directed toward community controlled food projects, essentially divesting from the industrial agricultural system. Beyond just farmers markets and training programs, resources need to be directed toward land and wealth redistribution to ensure equitable access to the food system for all people.
Leah Penniman is a Black Kreyol farmer, author, mother, and food justice activist who has been tending the soil and organizing for an anti-racist food system for 25 years. She currently serves as the founding co-executive director and farm director of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, a Black- and Brown-led project that works toward food and land justice. Her books are Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land (2018), and Black Earth Wisdom: Soulful Conversations with Black Environmentalists (2023). Learn more about Penniman’s work at soulfirefarm.org.