Published January 18th, 2024 at 6:00 AM4 minute read
Kansas and Missouri are distributing more than $13 million to strengthen local food systems.
Projects that touch processing, transportation and distribution between harvest and final sale to consumers are eligible for funding under the Resilient Food Systems Infrastructure (RFSI) program.
“It’s not the sexy part,” said Rebecca McMahon, administrator of the Local Food System Program at Kansas State University. “It’s not the growing and the making Instagram-worthy food at the end of the food chain. It’s the entirely non-sexy (part), putting things on a refrigerated truck and putting them in a cooler.”
But these connecting pieces are vital to a strong food system.
The program, which is a partnership between state departments and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), taps funding from the American Rescue Plan Act.
Brittney Grother, grants coordinator at the Kansas Department of Agriculture, said there is a lot of excitement in the state because the program addresses oft-overlooked links in the food chain.
“In order to see more resilience, there’s a need to focus on our local supply chain,” Grother said.
The department, which was awarded more than $6.4 million in RFSI funding, hosted outreach sessions to identify needs for funding in Kansas and used this information to build its proposal to the USDA.
Grother said the department focused on three priorities for the funding: aggregation points, food processing infrastructure and storage.
Food hubs and farmer cooperatives are important aggregation points that help individual producers sell and distribute their food. Grother said right now the state only has five food hubs, and they can’t serve all the state’s rural areas.
A food hub and farmer cooperative works with local producers to aggregate products and help sell them to larger institutions or individual buyers. It takes organization, refrigerated trucks/storage and enforced quality control.
“This type of work can be very expensive,” Grother said. “That’s why aggregation points is one of our top priorities.”
Increased capacity of aggregation points can also help producers sell to bigger institutions, like hospitals and schools.
In a Cornell University case study evaluating the economic impact of food hubs, 60% of farmers said they were able to expand their businesses because of their relationship with a food hub. And it concluded that “food hubs support the expanded availability of local farm products.”
Currently, many producers work from their home kitchens or facilities, which is why Grother said food processing infrastructure is another identified priority in Kansas.
To grow their businesses and to best adhere to food safety regulations, producers need access to commercial kitchens and other such facilities.
“We’re excited to get some applications for commercial kitchen spaces — whether that’s individual producers or communities,” Grother said.
The RFSI program offers two different funding sources. Infrastructure grants require a 50% funding match from applicants and offer awards ranging from $100,000 to $3 million. Simplified equipment-only grants, meanwhile, do not require a match and have awards ranging from $10,000 to $100,000.
The Kansas Rural Center volunteered as a resource for folks as they work through the grant applications, which are due at the end of January for Kansans.
Tom Buller, executive director at the center, said staff members at the center are not writing grants, but have been able to answer important questions for folks about the process and wording.
“This kind of funding can be really impactful,” Buller said. “The farms (and) businesses we tend to work with are on the small size, so access to capital is difficult.”
Buller is encouraged that most of the folks he’s worked with so far have been interested in improving the broader food system in their community, not just growing their own business.
“Pretty much everybody, they’re not just looking at their own farm,” Buller said. “It’s nice that people are moving in that direction.”
In addition to building and expanding commercial kitchens and food processing spaces with the infrastructure grants, Grother said the equipment grants will allow these spaces and others to increase their capacity for accepting locally grown food.
For example, a school might apply for equipment that peels and slices potatoes so it can buy from a local producer, rather than prepared foods from a national food distributor.
“In order to increase local food consumption, we’re hoping to increase processing equipment,” Grother said.
Producers also can apply for equipment grants to help expand their capacity and efficiency for after-harvest processing and distribution.
Storage is the final area of focus identified by the department, the lack of which can hinder business growth.
“Increasing storage will help Kansas producers to provide high quality, fresh products to growing markets and reduce food waste,” Grother said.
Grother said storage is especially important in rural areas where producers often travel further to get their products to market and have less access to cold storage facilities.
Notably, meat and poultry operations and equipment are excluded from the RFSI grant because those industries have more specific funding pools, like Local Meat Capacity Grants.
There has been a lot of excitement for the RFSI program.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the USDA had a similar program, Securing Local Food Systems, which Grother said was hugely popular in the state.
“We still get calls for those,” Grother said.
In Missouri, applications for RFSI funding opened earlier this month. The Missouri Department of Agriculture was allocated $6.9 million of the funding.
“We’re really excited about it because it’s one of the biggest challenges that our small producers face,” said Missouri Department of Agriculture Director Chris Chinn.
Missouri residents interested in the grant can seek assistance through the Missouri Agriculture, Food and Forestry Innovation Center.
Funding for these middle-of-the-supply-chain projects doesn’t come around often, so Grother said the department and folks around the state are eager.
“In order for our nation’s food system to be more resilient as a whole, there is an increased need in bolstering our local food systems,” Grother 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.