E101: Virginia Takes Equity Approach to Community Development Through Food

Wednesday, December 9, 2020
Related to: Community & Economic Development | Diet & Nutrition | Equity, Race & Food Justice | Food Policy |

As the governments the world over try to solve the thorny issue of equitable food access in underserved communities, the state of Virginia is trying something new. Led by Dr Jewel Bronaugh, the only black woman agriculture commissioner in the United States, Virginia passed legislation this spring, to establish something very special: The Virginia Food Access Investment Program and Fund which will give communities grants to create food businesses.


Interview Summary

So can you briefly describe the Virginia Food Access Investment Program and Fund?

This a statewide program and it focuses on equity and justice in local food systems, expanding food retailers that address food access throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia. So basically it’s an opportunity to offer grants that are going to fund the business development, construction, rehabilitation, equipment upgrades, or expansion of grocery stores, small food retailers, or innovative food retail projects. And it focuses on historically marginalized communities and particularly BIPOC communities, black indigenous people of color. So it’s a very unique program. We’re very excited that the Virginia general assembly, saw this as a priority and established the funding for what we call the V Faith brand.

That is very exciting. So you mentioned grocery stores as an example, and small food retail establishments. Are there other sorts of businesses that might be relevant in this context?

I’m super glad you asked this question. The legislation that established V Faith, comes from previous legislation. There was a proposal about two years ago called the grocery store investment grant, and it focused on allowing grocery stores to change their infrastructure so that they could offer different foods to the low access communities. But now, you see a lot more in terms of other types of establishment who can be a little bit more nimble and get into communities very closely, to make the impact on food access. And so now, in addition to the grocery stores, and other small food retailers, I mentioned innovative food retail projects, mobile markets, including food trucks, that have the ability to reach communities that really need the food. Community gardens that actually work with others, to sell that food within the local community, like a local church is another idea. Restaurants or cafes that have a direct food retail component, may also apply. We’re also looking at food hubs and farm stands and small limited resource, socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers and farm co-ops and even veteran farmers, who have a retail sales component, can also apply. So we greatly expanded the individuals who could apply for this grant because we see that a lot of people have very innovative ideas. It’s not just grocery stores, it’s not just small food retailers, but a variety of individuals who have some novel ideas of how to get good, healthy food into low access communities. And we wanted everyone to be able to apply for the funding.

So why is a fund like this needed? Can’t people just get loans in their local communities, to start up such businesses?

That would be wonderful if that was the case, but that is very challenging. And one thing the pandemic has done, is that it has shed light on our issues in terms of the food supply chain and issues of food access. And it just also shed light on hunger. And so you have BIPOC communities who are impacted at greater percentages, in terms of hunger and food access issues, than others. But you’ve also had BIPOC owned businesses that have struggled to obtain funding, when they had an idea that they wanted to bring to fruition, in terms of a small retail food business, they could not get traditional loans. That has been an issue that we have heard about in agriculture, for a long time with farmers. In those who are in the food based business. So they often don’t qualify for commercial credit, get turned down at higher percentages. So they need different sources of funding. When we were talking about getting this fund established, we talked about the idea of low interest or no interest loans, and then we said, you know, COVID has, really impacted a lot of communities, all across the United States, all across the world. And so if we’re going to get money like this out and available to BIPOC audiences, this needs to be a grant, without the expectation of repayment, because a lot of people need an infusion of funding, in order to get started. And the grants mean they don’t have to worry about paying the funds back. They can get going, or if they’re already going, they can get a little bit of money to push them further down the road, to really get established within the local communities. So we are excited about this being a grant, as opposed to a low interest or no interest loan.

You know, the issue of people and underserved communities not having access to capital to begin businesses, is something that we’re hearing a lot in our work in North Carolina and people around the country are hearing too. And so it’s definitely a problem. It’s been a problem for a long time, and it’s really wonderful that you’re finding ways to solve the problem. So let’s talk a little bit more about the nuts and bolts of this. So how are you structuring the program and the funded ministration, to achieve equitable community led development?

We didn’t quite know how we were going to do this. So when the legislation was passed, someone was very thoughtful in including that the fund would need to be established by an equitable, food oriented, development work group. And that last sentence in the legislation, is probably the most important part of the legislation. Because of EFOD, it designated the unique way that we were to establish this grant, based on those EFOD principles. We established an EFOD work group, to develop the grant proposal and the guideline. We had to get connected with folks who knew what they were doing in terms of the EFOD background, Trisha Chakraborty of Dice Enterprises and Rudy Espinoza of Inclusive Action, worked with our work group who had a little bit of background EFOD, but not as much as they do, in order to establish the grant. So to answer your question, someone who receives the grant, has to be substantially run by BIPOC leadership, or be working in active partnership with a BIPOC run organization. They have to demonstrate a history of community engagement and work in the community and have community support for the project. They have to directly serve residents in low food access and underserved communities, and even integrate community culture and artistic expression in their business model. Truly work to develop some new markets and enterprises and create some real and sustainable economic opportunities. And it’s really important to engage the community, in terms of how are you going to invest in future leadership, education, work development, job training and et cetera. So those are elements that we have included in the grant guidelines that an applicant has to meet, in order to be able to successfully receive the funding, because we didn’t want this to look something like EFOD. We really wanted to make sure that we integrated the EFOD principles within the grant guideline.

Well, thank you for that background. And also just for the sake of our listeners, we have recorded a series of podcasts on equitable food oriented development, including podcasts with some of the individuals just mentioned, and they’re really, very informative. So one of the things that impresses me about the work you’re doing, is that you’re avoiding what typically happens, which is institutions, like government or foundations or universities, have ideas for what might work in a community and then give out money to make those things happen. But it sounds like you’re not predetermining what the community solutions will be. You’re letting those being driven by ingenuity in the communities, is that correct?

Yes, one of the things that I said early on, to the work group, to my staff, was that I wanted to stay true to the EFOD principles. I said that early on because again, I didn’t want this to look like what I call, traditional economic development. We do great work in that area, at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, but I wanted to be truly community based. And I was fortunate enough to have a work group who were so passionate about also doing that. And my work group had individuals from a variety of backgrounds, including, you know, state government people, to church leaders. Those who had a background in Snap and Virginia Fresh Match, et cetera, was a broad variety of folks. But everyone early on, stayed committed, as much as we could, to the EFOD principles. And in working with Trisha and Rudy, they pressed us to make sure that we did that. When we were veering off the path, they would remind us that you have to think about this. You have to think about that, including the position announcement for the program coordinator, and so we have tried to really stay true to those principles. And that’s what I think is really going to make this a unique opportunity, here in Virginia.

It’s really a pretty profound issue, isn’t it? These are vexing, difficult challenges in communities and they require ingenuity. And the profoundness here comes from, where’s the ingenuity expected to be found. And it’s not necessarily from the top down as we just said, but from the communities themselves and just like you, we’ve seen all sorts of amazing ideas come from people in the community. And we’ve, reconceptualized our role from thinking about what solutions might be, to finding ways to support solutions that are community driven. And that sounds very consistent with the way you’re approaching it.

Yes and for me, I come from a university background. I have experienced that Virginia State University. That’s Virginia’s 1890 land grant institution, and I love young people. And I would often work with young people who, when you didn’t have the idea, if you just listen to them, they had incredible ideas. And that’s how our world is. We have to listen to people sometimes, when we don’t know. We have to first admit that we don’t know. And then we have to give others an opportunity to share what they do know, because people in these communities all across our country, they live these lives. They deal with these issues, they deal with the hunger issues. They deal with issues of racial equity, discrimination. They deal with the marginalism that so many of our communities are challenged by. Why wouldn’t they have the answers? So if we give them an opportunity to show us, to create those answers for their community, and have others join them in also saying, yes, we support them in this business idea. We think this could work for our community. We have to be successful. Now, of course, this is a little chancy because the interesting part about it is, this funding has come out from the legislature. So they’re going to want to see some impact. We have to show some impact, and if we don’t show impacts, there may be no more funding from the state level that comes to this. So it’s a mix of how we can get some early impacts, but how can we rely on people from local communities, to show us that they have great ideas to address issues related to food access, and therefore, really help us as the State of Virginia deal with that issue of hunger and food access.

So let’s follow up on that issue of impact. So how would you envision success in this context and how do you judge progress over time?

It’s going to be interesting, it’s going to take some time and I really have to compliment the state of Virginia and even the office of the governor. And it’s not just our current governor, but our previous governor who both of them focused a lot on food access issues. And in October, the governor launched the roadmap to end hunger. And that’s a tool that in essence, creates a roadmap over the next five to 10 years, of how we’re going to address this issue. And having a project like V Faith, it’s embedded into this roadmap, that’s pretty exciting. And so we really have a tool now as a state, to look at a lot of different things that we can do, but the identification of success is going to take time. So as an immediate success, we hope that the general assembly will see that this project can be utilized, to really get money out to communities and help with this issue. So that’s kind of the first order of success, but we hope to start to begin to see more communities have access to fresh foods. We want to see more leadership and business opportunities come from historically marginalized communities. And we want these communities to get the support they need for business development. And we’re really hoping to see some creative ideas come about. Those are some of the things that we’re looking at, to begin to measure the success. How many new businesses are going to come from this, or how many businesses that weren’t going to make it, are going to start to become successful. That’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking for that transformation, at a community level, over time. So it’s going to start small and hopefully we’ll begin to see, one by one, more of these opportunities and more of these businesses and more wealth and leadership created in communities that really need this infusion of resources.

Dr. Jewel H. Bronaugh is the 16th Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Prior to this position, Dr. Bronaugh served as the State Director of the USDA Farm Service Agency and as the Dean of the College of Agriculture at Virginia State University.  In her earlier career at VSU, she was the Associate Administrator of Cooperative Extension and a 4-H Youth Development Specialist, where she developed and delivered programs that addressed issues of bullying among today’s youth.


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