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Missouri grant targets food insecurity, but urban farmers complain of high upfront costs

Springfield Community Gardens built their greenhouse in part using grant money from the Missouri Department of Agriculture.
Anna Meadows
Springfield Community Gardens
Springfield Community Gardens built their greenhouse in part using grant money from the Missouri Department of Agriculture.

The Missouri Department of Agriculture has opened applications for a grant for urban farmers who tackle food insecurity in their communities. While grants are crucial for urban farms, some find this one to be inaccessible.

The Missouri Department of Agriculture’s Food Insecure Urban Agriculture Matching Grant will award up to $50,000 to nine urban farms who are helping to address food insecurity in their communities.

The grant is significantly higher than in previous years, signaling that lawmakers and the Department of Agriculture are making food insecurity a priority. Yet while the department aims to help urban farmers grow their businesses, some farmers say the matching funds and other requirements push the grant out of reach.

“What urban food security organization has 50k in liquid capital?” asked Dina Newman, the director of the University of Missouri - Kansas City Center for Neighborhoods and the co-founder of Kansas City Black Urban Growers.

In order to apply for the full $50,000 farms must be able to contribute $12,500 to the project. Half of that contribution can be “in-kind,” such as donations or volunteer hours. But the larger hurdle for many farms is that the grant is a reimbursement, meaning farmers must spend their own money first and get paid back later.

Newman said such grants are crucial for urban farms, especially at a time when the pandemic and food supply chain issues have exposed a need for locally grown food — but she says urban farms often have to work hard to survive.

“It really is about providing locally grown, affordable, healthy food and getting it in the hands of the community,” she said. “They're not doing it to get rich, but you have to have money to do it. And a lot of them are not making a ton of money.”

Young Family Farm encountered this issue as they plan to apply for the grant this year. The small family-owned farm provides healthy food options to the Ivanhoe neighborhood in Kansas City.

“The Missouri Department of Ag is doing a good thing. Having these grants available for farmers, they've helped us and they've helped other farmers,” said Alan Young, co-owner of Young Family Farm. “So we are not coming from a mindset that the Missouri Department of Ag is not trying to help farmers.”

Still, Young’s daughter, Alana Henry, said their farm is not “rolling in the dough,” so they will likely apply for a smaller amount of money. In the past, they applied for the grant and were denied.

“Although it's packaged at something to target areas like this, it is really sort of designed for large scale operations where they would have that sort of discretionary funds,” said Henry.

Christi Miller, the director of communications for the Missouri Department of Agriculture, said that farmers’ concerns are understandable, but the department has to make sure that the money is being used effectively.

“We're very conscious that we're good stewards of that money on behalf of Missouri citizens,” she said. “Knowing that the projects are done and completed before we give the money because we understand that things happen and then those projects don’t get to fruition.”

She said the same goes for another concern that farmers have raised, the restrictions on the use of the money. For instance, salaries and fuel are not eligible.

“It comes back to being very conscious of this being taxpayer money and not paying salaries,” Miller said. “It needs to be a brick and mortar that turns into a long term investment.”

Newman said that the limitations, especially for salaries, are a big issue for farmers.

“Folks need to be paid. You can't volunteer your way out of poverty,” she said. “You can have volunteers come to your farm, but at some point you have to pay people.”

At the Springfield Community Gardens in southwest Missouri, the farm has received the department’s food insecure matching grant twice. Director Maile Auterson hasn’t experienced issues, yet she says the organization also gets funding from other sources.

“I can see where a young beginning farmer would not have a lot of resources to make the match to begin with,” she said.

At the same time, Auterson is excited that lawmakers are finally putting more money toward urban farms and food insecurity. She hopes the trend continues.

“But now that we can all agree the food system is broken, we should all agree that it's gonna take a lot of money to turn it around again,” she said. “We all need to work together to make sure that the farmers have the resources they need.”

The application is open until Aug. 31. Urban farms in Cape Girardeau, Columbia, Jefferson City, Joplin, Kansas City, Lee’s Summit, Springfield, St. Joseph and St. Louis areas are eligible to apply.

Eva Tesfaye covers agriculture, food systems and rural issues for KCUR and Harvest Public Media and is a Report For America corps member. Follow Eva on Twitter @EvaRTesfaye.

I report on agriculture, food and water issues for Harvest Public Media and the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk. I’m based at KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri. If you have story ideas, you can reach me at etesfaye@kcur.org or on Twitter @EvaRTesfaye.
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