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A Lawrence Farmer’s Innovative Approach to Food Security  What Happens If We Fund Food Production, Rather Than Consumption? 

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Above image credit: Pantaleon Florez III is working to initiate a program that funds food production, rather than consumption, as a means to solving food security issues. (Cami Koons | Flatland)
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8 minute read

LAWRENCE, Kansas — Pantaleon Florez III looks at food security as an issue to be solved.  

He asks those working in local food systems (and himself) what they would do if their community didn’t have a hunger issue.  

“That’s my new narrative: ‘What would you do if you didn’t have to do this work?’” Florez asked. “Get yourself there, while also solving things instead of just band-aiding constantly.”  

Florez is tired of old food assistance programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and food pantries. 

In 2018 he started the Unsuspended Food Program in Douglas County. The idea was to raise money on the back end to support the work he put in on his farm and in the kitchen to feed people. 

“That did not work at all,” Florez said.  

He donated thousands of dollars’ worth of organically grown produce, and prepared food, without nearly as much fundraising to compensate.  

“I obviously don’t regret it. It helped feed a lot of people. But it also just wasn’t sustainable,” Florez said.  

The outcome led Florez to look at food subsidy programs in a different way. Most programs subsidize consumption — participants get money to buy food, or food banks are funded to recover and distribute food.  

But what would happen if that funding went, instead, to pay the salaries of farmers who grew fresh food and gave it away at no cost?  

Florez, who runs Maseualkualli Farms on the north end of Lawrence, started to research and plan.  

He developed a proposal that treats “food as a public work” and creates a system of localized food and employment.  

“We currently subsidize the consumption of food to try and eliminate hunger,” Florez explained.  

According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), food insecurity rates nationwide have hovered between 10% and 14% of households since 1998. Within this data, Black and Hispanic households are more than twice as likely to struggle with food security than white households.  

To Florez, this means the food assistance programs in place haven’t made significant progress increasing food security.  

“It’s not solving an issue … It’s really just maintaining a level of hardship, which is just really hard to think about,” Florez said. “Thirty years of longitudinal evidence means that we have to do something different.” 

“We have the opportunity to change the tide of subsidizing the consumption of food for the benefit of corporate entities to subsidizing food production for the direct benefit of our community members who are surviving food apartheid,” the Peoples’ Century Farm project report reads.  

How It Could Work  

Last year Florez researched, wrote and revised a report for the Peoples’ Century Farm to crystallize his vision of food as a public work. 

The farm would use 40-60 acres of public land, either city -or county- owned, and employ BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) folks to grow, harvest, manage and prepare food that would be given away at no cost.  

The plan calls for an operating budget of about $1 million each year. This would sustain livable wages (about $60,000 annually) for 14-16 BIPOC food systems workers. Once fully operational (within five years) Florez expects $5- $6 million worth of food produced, annually, on the Peoples’ Century Farm.  

“You can get so much more back if you’re actually producing it versus if you’re buying it.” Florez said. “You get so much more return. You get so much more direct service.” 

Florez struggled with food security as a graduate student, when he had to make tough decisions between paying rent and stocking the cupboard. It’s part of what fuels his work. 

“As someone who has been on SNAP, I know that you can’t just throw fresh vegetables at people and say the problem is solved,” Florez said.  

Enter the other element of the Peoples’ Century Farm: food preparation.  

In addition to vegetable, orchard and livestock production, the Peoples’ Century Farm would maintain its own kitchen and meat processing facilities. Folks in the community would have access to both fresh foods and fully prepared meals.  

Florez imagines these facilities, which are currently in short supply in Douglas County, would be available for other local producers to rent.  

“There’s a lot of additional economic components that are aren’t just ‘giving away free food,’ which is already a huge thing in and of itself, but helping producers have access to value added kitchens and places to slaughter chickens, for example,” Florez said. 

An open hand with a small red and black beetle in the middle. The background is out of focus green crops.
Florez follows organic, no-till farming practices and does not use herbicide or pesticide. He tries to embrace little pests like this Colorado Potato beetle. (Cami Koons | Flatland)

Food as a public work already exists, but in a less intentional way.  

Cary Rivard is a professor and director of the Olathe Horticulture Research and Extension Center through Kansas State University and works with the university’s Urban Food Systems Initiative.  

While not the same as Florez’s proposal, Rivard said research programs, like those that he oversees at KSU Olathe, are publicly funded programs that work with local food pantries to donate the research crops they grow, usually between 10,000 and 20,000 pounds of produce a season.  

During the pandemic, Rivard said the center received a small grant through SNAP Ed to grow a donation garden in partnership with After the Harvest.  

“We asked them what they wanted us to grow, and they came back with a whole bunch of things we really don’t grow very often here like collards and kale,” Rivard explained. 

It was a one-time grant, but Rivard said it allowed the center to produce a lot of food, directly informed by its consumers. In a typical program year, food grown at the center is dictated by the research grants, so sometimes that means several thousand pounds of tomatoes.  

The Urban Food Systems Initiative, and Rivard’s outreach as an extension officer, has started to work towards a more equitable food system. 

“It seems like one of the things that we have learned over time is, just providing freebies doesn’t really help,” Rivard said.  

“One of the themes that I’ve heard from several BIPOC farmers around the country, is that there’s only so much that can be done by folks that are outside of their community. The folks that are really making big impacts are the ones that live in that community, work in that community or from that community.”  

The Peoples’ Century Farm, which would be run and informed by BIPOC food systems workers, would allow for this kind of community-informed support. 

Florez wants the program to employ BIPOC food producers to “shift the dynamics of BIPOC in agriculture,” a population that has historically been disenfranchised in the field. Even today, 98% of farmland in the U.S. is owned by white individuals.  

These positions would provide security and a place for BIPOC farmers to do the work they’re most interested in.  

“I know a lot of my farmers like myself are really into food sovereignty, food security work, so that would also give them a rewarding path in agriculture and not just one that’s all about capitalism and consumption,” Florez explained. 

Growing Culturally Significant Food  

Florez walked along rows of crops on his farm and explained the varietal characteristics or different farming techniques he had implemented.  

There were vegetables for his family, rhubarb bound for some local bakeries, and a variety of purple corn native to the Guanajuato region where his great-grandfather lived that would be turned into pinole. 

Several years ago, Florez started growing crops that connected him to his Guanajuato heritage. Now he grows and researches peas, corn, squash, beans and peanuts that hail from the region. Last year, he integrated a variety of purple sweet potatoes, native to Peru, for his partner who is Peruvian.  

A man in a gray t-shirt and black pants holds his arms outstretched over knee-high stalks of corn.
Florez explains how he planted the Guanajuato corn in twin rows this year. (Cami Koons | Flatland)

Florez realized the importance of growing and having accessibility to culturally specific foods, and it became a tenant of the Peoples’ Century Farm plan.  

“If you have an element of BIPOC in positions of power in these organizations that that do food as a public work, then you also have a core group of people who can reflect the cultural relevance of food that’s needed in that area,” Florez said.  

For example, the farm, which would also raise proteins, would mainly focus on chicken, a meat that doesn’t have a lot of religious restrictions.  

Importantly, the food production workers at the farm would have the agency to decide what is grown on the farm and how it’s prepared.  

This agency is something Emily Brown, founder of the Food Equality Initiative and Free From Market, believes is essential to solving issues of food security.  

“It’s important to acknowledge that when we don’t do that, we may have distributed x pounds of food, but we haven’t actually solved people’s problems,” Brown explained. “We have not truly met their needs.”

In a time where data drives funding and decisions, Brown champions programs that look at folks with food security issues as people, and not just data points.  

“They need to not only have a voice, but they need to be heard — they need to be leading and designing the work,” Brown said.  

Brown’s organization, Free From Market, treats food as medicine for folks struggling with chronic health conditions. Informed by her own experiences, the platform meets people where they’re at with telehealth education and food delivery.  

Brown said it’s time for a “paradigm shift” to reach food security, and plans like Florez’s are worth pursuing. 

“I don’t believe that there’s one way to solve this problem and I think that we’ve got to have again, a mix of solutions,” Brown said. 

Moving Toward Food Security 

Last year Florez hoped to get the project integrated into the 2023 Farm Bill, but the time for that has since passed.  

Farm Bills, which determine USDA budget and priorities, are typically evaluated every five years, so Florez has turned his attention to local funding to actualize a pilot of the project in Lawrence.  

Once a pilot has been successful, he imagines the food as a public works model could enter the Farm Bill budget, which typically allocates most of its budget towards nutrition programs. 

It’s too late in the local budget planning season to make it into Lawrence’s 2024 budget, but he’s working to collect letters of support from organizations and community members to take as testimony to the commission next year. 

“If you go and you look at the city of Lawrence’s budget, you realize that funding this at that million-dollar rate is so ridiculously minimal compared to the whole ($439 million) 2023 budget — it’s like half of a percent,” Florez said.  

“I say that means the money is there,” Florez said. “So, then it just becomes a matter of the public supporting it and then the political will to get done.” 

Already, Florez has some local support. 

The Douglas County Food Policy Council, a group studying and promoting policy to reduce barriers to food access, already wrote a letter of support for the Peoples’ Century Farm.  

The food policy council doesn’t have funding to issue grants or fund projects in the county, but it tries to bridge community members to policies.  

In 2017 Douglas County adopted the council’s 10-year Food System Plan, around which Florez framed much of his food as a public work proposal.  

“There are just so many of our goals (in) Panta’s (Florez) food as a public work plan, it just seems like a no brainer to me,” said Cody Haynes, a member of the council. 

Some of these goals include celebrating cultural heritage as part of local food production and growing food on public land, two of the main tenants of the Peoples’ Century Farm. 

“I am grateful for Panta’s energy and intelligence,” Haynes said. “The fact that Panta’s so willing to pursue this and pursue this for us, for our community, is really important. I don’t want the public to take that for granted.”  

Already Florez looks to the end of a food apartheid Douglas County. When the Peoples’ Century Farm is no longer needed to keep people fed, he hopes it will persist as a place to learn and as a place for folks to enjoy growing food as much as any other hobby.  

“If it can be an educational place where enough people can learn how to farm sustainably at scale … it becomes something of leisure, and it becomes something of community and exercise and being outside – food production can just eventually become a thing that we just do again,” Florez said.  

Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. 

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