FarmsSHARE links sellers and growers to benefit communities of color during COVID-19

When COVID-19 shut down Ohio State's campuses last March, it also closed off an important market for InFACT's Buckeye ISA program that empowers low-income families with children to start small-scale food enterprises to supplement their income and increase fresh produce consumption in the household. The university had been a purchaser of the produce grown by the families.

What happened to Buckeye ISA families affected many growers throughout the nation, who found their markets eliminated or changed due to the pandemic. To mitigate the damage in central Ohio, a group led by the Ohio Farmers Market Network, Columbus Public Health's Center for Public Health Innovation and Local Food System Strategies Team came up with a creative new pilot program: Farms Serving Health and Racial Equity—known as FarmsSHARE.

With funding from the City of Columbus and The Kroger Co. Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Foundation Emergency COVID-19 Response Fund, FarmsSHARE is running for eight weeks from late August through October 10. The program is connecting local food-focused community organizations with Columbus urban growers and Ohio farmers—prioritizing recruitment of black-, brown- and indigenous-led organizations and growers.

Columbus City Councilmember Priscilla Tyson's support helped bring the program to fruition. “The FarmsShare pilot is not only an innovative way to increase food equity in underserved communities; it is a win-win for everyone—growers, businesses/organizations that sell produce, and residents that purchase at affordable prices,” says Tyson. “Moreover, I was happy to support the pilot because it was implemented during the pandemic which exacerbated existing disparities in BlPOC communities that this program is designed to serve.”

InFACT contributed to FarmsSHARE by tapping their extensive network to recruit community organizations as host locations and farmer-participants. Thanks to FarmsSHARE, the produce grown by Mansfield Microfarm Project's Richland Gro-op and Buckeye ISA families would find a new market in underserved communities. “Since COVID disrupted the sale of produce from our Buckeye ISA participants to Ohio State, I thought this would be a good opportunity to sell produce through additional markets, and make new connections with local organizations and farmers markets that will hopefully continue,” says InFACT Program Coordinator Angela Blatt.

FarmsSHARE was inspired by a similar program in North Carolina that provided locally grown produce to hospitality industry workers who had been laid off due to COVID. “We saw North Carolina's program as a great way to take one dollar and make an impact three times over,” says Jaime Hadji, chair of Ohio Farmers Market Network. “We started from their framework, then edited the program quite a bit for our region.”

For central Ohio, that meant focusing on racial equity issues in food availability—a long-time struggle that partners, including InFACT, have sought to address. “We looked at how we could use that model to solve the intractable problems that we have been running into,” says Cheryl Graffagnino, Local Food System Strategies Coordinator for Columbus Public Health. “In particular, how could we help the small farmers market and farm stand efforts that were happening in communities, especially in our black and brown communities that have been struggling due to a history of redlining, disinvestment and other factors?”

The connections forged between growers and community-centered markets created through FarmsSHARE have helped to bring fresh food into neighborhoods that fall into the category of “food deserts,” where residents have limited access to healthy, affordable food. Using a wide range of distribution methods—from farmers markets to home deliveries or other pre-established models—FarmsSHARE has brought the same high-quality fruits and vegetables found at upscale farmers markets to neighborhoods that may not even have a grocery store for miles.

Julialynne Walker, director of the Bronzeville Growers Market, has spent years working to make nutritious food accessible to the King-Lincoln Bronzeville neighborhood on Columbus's Near East Side. Without a nearby grocery store, and with numerous fast food outlets providing high-caloric foods that are expensive per serving, residents' diets are “compromised simply by their environment,” says Walker.

The FarmsSHARE pilot connected the Bronzeville Growers Market with Pam Mack, a Mansfield-based Black grower who Walker had met previously at the Clintonville Farmers Market. Walker had dreamed of selling Mack's produce, but wasn't sure how economically feasible it would be for Mack since the Bronzeville Growers Market cannot command the top-dollar prices found at markets like Clintonville, Worthington or Dublin.

Through the pilot, Mack has made weekly deliveries to Bronzeville, whose Thursday afternoon markets quickly became a popular shopping stop for Near East Side residents. “I'm 100 percent pleased that I was able to be connected to a grower that I knew something about,” says Walker. “And she has not let me down on the quality of the produce. People are totally excited. They're like, ‘This is really good! How can we get more?'”

That's a question Walker and Mack are now contemplating because of the so-far successful pilot, along with FarmsSHARE organizers. “To be able to go to the Bronzeville Growers Market and see the array of gorgeous produce ready to distribute in a low-cost farmers market model is amazing,” says Graffagnino. “It's tapping into that cultural shift in our communities—an emphasis on local, smaller-scale food.”

“InFACT has created networks through several different projects, and they have all come together through FarmsSHARE,” says InFACT's Blatt. “I love seeing all these efforts working together toward our shared goal of building a stronger local food system.”