Knitting Equity into the Grain Chain

September 10, 2021

A panel discussion held July 28, 2021 during the Maine Grain Alliance's Kneading Equity Conference

On July 28, as part of the Maine Grain Alliance’s 2021 Kneading Conference, Amy Halloran, AGC's Education & Outreach Working Group Coordinator led a panel discussion called Knitting Equity into the Grain Chain. She arranged the talk to showcase innovations to bridge the gap between hunger relief programs and regional grain projects. The pandemic gave rise to a few such bridges, including AGC’s Neighbor Loaves project, and Amy hoped to inspire more by highlighting them at the Kneading Conference, which is a place for regional grain possibilities of many forms to be explored and expanded. 

The Maine Grain Alliance gave two hours for the conversation during a packed week of virtual programming. Amy gathered speakers from AGC, and people beyond the Midwest. The goal was to highlight projects that link fresh flour and whole grains from regional food systems to low-income communities and hunger relief programs, and highlight the elements that allowed these food bridges to be built.

The Maine Grain Alliance has generously agreed to open up the recording of this conversation to the public, eager to help distribute these ideas and innovations. There’s a lot of work to be done in creating equitable access to regional grains, and we’d love to see more happening in this sector of our field. Do you know of a project that is fostering this type of grain change? Please be in touch with Amy Halloran, ahalloran@graincollaborative.com—AGC wants to continue this dialogue, and further this work.

WATCH HERE

 

Here are the people who spoke on the panel, and their stories:

AGC Member Chef Fresh Roberson, Farming Chef from Fresher Together & Director of the Chicago Bread Club.

Fresh is a chef, farmer, Chicago Neighbor Loaves coordinator for AGC, and all-around food and farm activist. Fresh curates a weekly BIPOC Harvest Bag featuring items from their farm as well as the products of local BIPOC farmers and producers. Fresh also coordinates distribution of fresh flour and grains on the South Side of Chicago. Their Community Grain Shares Project includes a paid subscription, similar to a CSA model, which helps support the cost of distributing regional staple crops through free and reduced price outlets. This means beans, oats, cornmeal and flour from Midwest farms are on mobile markets and in emergency feeding programs, such as the Fresh Moves Mobile Market, Brave Space Alliance’s Crisis Pantry,  Love Fridge Chicago, and Food, Farm, Familias all on Chicago’s South Side.  

AGC Member Eric Schedler, owner and baker, Muddy Fork Farm & Bakery 

Bloomington, Indiana bakery Muddy Fork was one of the first bakeries in the AGC network to initiate Neighbor Loaves, a method that secured the grain supply chain during the early disruptions of COVID-19. As food distribution circuits drastically changed in March 2020, having a way to allow customers to support bakeries and food pantries was very useful; some bakeries, like Muddy Fork, have continued integrating Neighbor Loaves into their baking schedules on an on-going basis.

Here’s how the system works: consumers pay bakers’ full costs for loaves that are donated to food pantries, helping small bakeries cover their  overhead expenses and retain staff during unpredictable times. These loaves are made with at least 50% regionally grown and ground grain, helping to stabilize farms and mills while providing food to pantries, and thus eaters, which have experienced significant increases in demand for food due to the pandemic.

Muddy Fork, which mills grain from Janie’s Mill (in addition to buying some of their flour), is continuing to produce 75 loaves a week for their local food pantry, Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard/. They’ve told Eric they could use six other bakeries helping out in this same fashion, suggesting the necessity for expanding these links.  

 

Katherine Kehrli, founder of Community Loaves

Community Loaves is a Pacific Northwest-based response to pandemic-related bread shortages. This model builds on The Bread Lab’s Approachable Loaf and Neighbor Loaves, linking regional flour to food banks through volunteer home bakers. Community Loaves created a framework for training home bakers to participate in regional grain economies and emergency feeding efforts, systematizing recipes, nutrition tags, and training. Bakers are coached through preparing the projects’ standardized bread recipe in baking lessons over Zoom, and are also certified in safe food handling measures. Distribution of regional flour and of finished loaves is a coordinated effort, helping bakers receive flour at an affordable price, and helping goods flow smoothly into the emergency feeding system; food banks can much more easily receive 100 uniformly packaged loaves of the same kind of bread aggregated from a group of trained home bakers, than one-off donations of many different types. 

The success of this project, which is now in operation in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, can be traced to Katherine’s career as a professional educator in baking, and a determination to understand the system and create a solution that fits. Community Loaves works with food banks, flour mills, and health departments to create networked programs that suit the needs of all parties, including home bakers.

 

Mark McMullen, Director of Agricultural Development Division, & Jessica Brooks, Program Manager, New York State Grown & Certified, New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets

Mark McMullen and Jessica Brooks discussed the Nourish NY program, a pandemic-related initiative created by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. As New York farmers and food processors faced the harsh reality of a disrupted supply chain and closure of a significant portion of their markets, such as restaurants and schools, the state created this program to redirect New York State farm goods and products to emergency food providers. Now in its fourth round of funding, Nourish NY has committed $85 million to the program.     

 

Silas Conroy, Director of Supply Chain and Produce Merchant, Headwater Food Hub  

Headwater is a food hub in Ontario, NY, a site that aggregates foods from many different farms for distribution into high-volume channels. Their work connects them to schools, food banks, community-based organizations, youth programs, and anti-hunger groups, working to build regional agriculture and food access for all eaters.

This farm-to-food bank work began in farm-to-school efforts. New York State incentivized procurement of state-produced foods in school settings, and tackling barriers to link schools to farms and food manufacturers was a prequel to helping grains enter farm-to-foodbank channels.

Headwater took a proactive stance to help get grains into the Nourish NY program, reaching out to Farmer Ground Flour, an organic flour mill in the Finger Lakes Region, and pasta manufacturer Sfoglini about the opportunity, too. Headwater has installed a bagging line to help continue to funnel food from small grain producers across the state into the Nourish NY program, and other, similar market opportunities. 

Silas cited relationships as key to making this expansion work. Relationships with Jessica Brooks at the NY Department of Ag and Markets, and his friendship with Greg Russo of Farmer Ground Flour, allowed everyone to work together and troubleshoot obstacles in the process of doing so. In other words, to extend regional supply chains into new markets requires solid connections throughout the entire system. Building change takes time, trust, and partnerships.


Kate Galassi, Operations Manager, Sfoglini Pasta  

Sfoglini is a chef-founded pasta company that began in Brooklyn, NY in 2012, and has gained attention nationally for its high quality organic pastas. Less well-known is their standard practice of using 60% New York-grown flour, in addition to 40% American durum wheat flour in their products. During the pandemic, Sfoglini began producing pasta for the Nourish NY program, creating a pasta using 85% New York flour, as required for participation. Prior to this opportunity, Sfoglini considered people who could pay $8 a box for pasta as their prime customers. Now that they’ve had great success with Nourish NY, however, the company is rethinking its approach. 

As operations manager, Kate set targets for serving wholesale accounts in this new sector. They would sell a pallet at a time, and cut their price by 10% to make the product better fit the economics of food banks. Seeing that these higher volume, slightly lower priced markets contributed to their bottom line, they were sold. Kate began talking to Jessica Brooks at the New York Department of Ag & Markets about entering the farm to school section. Now, in addition to farm-to-food bank pasta, they have farm-to-school pasta made with New York Grown and Certified wheat milled by Birkett Mills, a longtime buckwheat miller that was convinced to create a dedicated NY grain bin for this food manufacturer, and others.