by Heidi Rupke
When many businesses and schools closed abruptly in March 2020, the work of Mid-South farmers continued. However, many markets for selling produce were entirely upended. Restaurants and schools that would have typically purchased local produce weren’t buying, and the next season’s crops were already in the ground.
Enter Brenda Williams, Healthy Food Coordinator for Communities Unlimited, a 501c3 whose vision is to combine fundamental infrastructure with economic and entrepreneurial growth strategies to move rural places along a trajectory toward prosperity. Brenda’s team secured a $200,000 grant from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation to support small-scale growers who needed new markets immediately.
With this money, Brenda recruited 15 local farmers, many of them minority growers, who would sell their produce wholesale. The program ran for 12 weeks, covering the height of the Mid-South growing season. Once purchased, the fruits and vegetables were harvested and delivered weekly to the Heartland Hands Food Pantry in Southaven, Mississippi.
“We didn’t want to just have donated produce. We wanted a win-win for growers, also expanding their capacity,” says Brenda.
In addition to an extra $1000 to $4000 per week in sales, the Farm to Food Pantry program offered other benefits. Growers saw a 7-10 day turnaround on invoices, compared with a more typical 30-day window for wholesalers. As growers navigated the wholesale market, some of them for the first time, they added new skills and knowledge to their business. Some learned that delivery on Tuesdays meant harvesting on Mondays, not Thursdays. Farmers had to invest in boxes for transport and figure out Plan B when a truck broke down. Food pantry volunteers and patrons offered feedback on the quality of the vegetables, which helped guide farm practices. It also connected growers to new clients.
Heartland Hands Food Pantry, easily accessible off I-55, serves thousands of food-insecure Mississippians. Brenda cold-called the pantry and immediately felt good about the connection. With a variety of small-scale growers in the project, she could offer the pantry a variety of goods. Heartland Hands offered a well-organized system of distribution and oversight. They worked together to develop a program that delivered the freshest possible goods to food pantry clients.
“I love that it’s local and it’s fresh. Growers are harvesting on Monday and boxes go out on Tuesdays. You can’t get much fresher than that,” says Brenda.