(This is the last of five posts highlighting the history and work of USDA’s Community Food Projects Competitive Grant Program, or “CFP.” This post uses portions of previous posts that started last June as well as a more recent “Viewpoint” article at the Center for a Livable Future)

The state of New Mexico has endured some of the worst food insecurity rates in the United States in spite of a large but often struggling agriculture sector. For years, anti-poverty advocates would keep hunger at bay with food banks and food stamps, while small farmer activists would fight for higher farm prices by organizing farmers’ markets.

But as the 20th century drew to a close, the state’s food system stakeholders began asking themselves if there wasn’t a better way. Could they benefit lower-income households at the same time they helped farmers? Going further, could they possibly find common cause with government agencies around a shared vision for a just and sustainable food system?

They found their answers in the relatively new USDA Community Food Projects Competitive Grant Program (“CFP”). According to Pam Roy, executive director of the New Mexico-based non-profit Farm to Table, “CFP became the launching pad for all our community food initiatives. With a 3-year, $300,000 CFP grant in 2001, we planted the food system seed and its never stopped growing!” During that time, the grant enabled Farm to Table to start a new farmers’ market that served Santa Fe’s low- and middle-income communities, develop the state’s first farm-to-school program, and create the New Mexico Food and Agriculture Policy Council.

CFP celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2021. Authorized by Congress as part of the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996 (the farm bill), the program has awarded about 650 grants worth nearly $100 million to hundreds of communities in almost every state and U.S. territory (More information about the distribution of CFP grants from 2002 to 2021 can be found at Community Food Projects Program Dashboard (arcgis.com)). The program’s Congressional language clearly set it apart from previous Federal food and farm initiatives by stating that funded projects will “meet the food needs of low-income people…increase the self-reliance of communities…promote comprehensive responses to food, farm, and nutrition issues.”

Looking ahead, the lessons learned and impacts achieved strongly suggest that CFP should not only be reauthorized in the next farm bill (2023), but at a funding level considerably higher than its current $5 million per year.

No one can attest to CFP’s significance better than Dr. Elizabeth “Liz” Tuckermanty.  As USDA’s National Program Leader for CFP from its inception to her retirement in 2012, Liz developed much of the superstructure and nuance that gave the program its most distinguishing features. She told me that when she first took the position, she thought, “Now we can finally talk about food systems because every time I had brought up the subject in USDA, I would get push back.” She also emphasized how the program “was innovative; grants could run for three years (now four), and funded projects were required to have multiple partners. This gave communities a chance to look at a much longer horizon, and even dream a little.”

As Liz saw it, CFP enabled grassroots groups to develop food projects for the first time. In close collaboration with the emerging network of community food system stakeholders, she carved out small pots of money for training and technical assistance. These additional resources nurtured a culture of mutual support between new and “veteran” community food security and justice organizations that strengthened everybody’s work. In 2002 with the advent of one-year, $35,000 planning grants, CFP enabled even more “first-timers” to prepare projects that might become eligible for the maximum $300,000 (later to become $400,000) grants.

Through growth in their confidence and competence, Farm to Table and their partners leveraged their CFP grant to the hilt. Over the past 20 years, they secured tens of millions of dollars from the New Mexico state legislature and other sources to support farm-to-school and farm-to-senior meal initiatives, “Double-up Bucks” programs for SNAP recipients at farmers’ markets, and local produce incentive programs for WIC. Summing up two decades of progress, Pam Roy said, “CFP’s multiplier effect has been massive!”

Even in California with its advanced food culture, CFP catalyzed food projects and policies that would set the pace for the Nation’s food movement. Reflecting on her time as the Food System Project manager at the Berkeley, California non-profit Center for Ecoliteracy, Janet Brown credits a 1998 Community Food Project grant of $186,000 for revolutionizing school food, not only in Berkeley but across America. “The grant gave us the chance to develop and implement the Berkeley Unified School District School Food Policy,” Janet told me. Over 50 community agencies along with Alice Waters and Berkeley’s Mayor signed onto the policy that made an end to student hunger and the procurement of local and sustainably produced food in the school cafeterias district-wide goals. Not only did the policy impact Berkeley’s 9,400 students in 15 schools, but the school district was also, according to USDA, the “the first in the United States to adopt a school food policy that encourages [local] food purchases…and implements a curriculum that [connects] the cafeteria, gardens, and classrooms.”

Over time, the policy and an accompanying Ecoliteracy report “Rethinking School Lunch” produced a slew of then cutting-edge food initiatives: free meals for all low-income children; breakfast and snack programs for all schools; salad bars, vegetarian options, organic fruit and snacks for all after-school programs; gardens in 14 of the district’s 15 schools. The people of Berkeley were so taken with these actions that they would pass a school bond issue that included $7 million for 3 new school kitchens and the renovation of 12 others by an overwhelming margin of 83 percent.

Yes, Janet Brown noted, people would sometimes poke fun at their work, saying it was easy to get such programs started there because, “after all, it’s Berkeley!” Having been immersed in the work for 8 years, she dismisses the “easy” part out of hand, and adds with a hint of irony, “As they say, ‘so goes Berkeley, so goes California, and so goes the Nation!” She’s right—tens of millions of U.S. school children have been eating better and learning about food, gardening, and health because of the ground that was first tilled in Berkeley. “And in a larger sense,” Janet added, “I was reminded of something Wendell Berry once wrote, ‘If I started an institute, I would call it the Institute of Better Ways of Thinking and Doing.’ That’s what the CFP grants were.”

The good news is that it doesn’t take a decade or more to change a community’s food environment. In Bridgeport, Connecticut, Green Village Initiative (GVI), a 2018 CFP grant recipient, has turned vacant urban lots in this struggling post-industrial city into 12 community gardens including a two-acre urban farm. Seven farmers’ markets are also bringing fresh, local food to the city’s low-access food areas while Black-owned, private urban farms collaborate with GVI to operate Connecticut’s only all-Bridgeport grown farmers’ market.

To fill another urban community with good food and to provide incubator space for BIPOC-owned food businesses, the Lexington, Kentucky North Limestone Development Corporation (NoLi) developed the Julietta Public Market. Housed in a beautifully remodeled interior space of a former bus garage, 90, mostly minority and start-up food vendors sell their wares. One of the anchor vendors is Black Soil, an organization dedicated to assisting Kentucky’s Black farmers. In addition to operating several market stalls that only sell Kentucky-grown produce, Black Soil provides an array of educational, outreach, and aggregating services for the state’s Black farmers.

A 2020 CFP grant is supporting the development of this neighborhood economic development engine. According to Lexington City Councilman James Brown, “Julietta Market is filling the food gap with lots of healthy food and educational opportunities. The Market is heaven sent, and the Community Food Projects grant made it happen!”

While CFP has spawned hundreds of similar community food stories across the country, it doesn’t come without flaws. Federal grant administrative requirements have been so onerous as to deter many smaller, lower capacity organizations from applying. As Eleanor Angerame of GVI told me, she almost didn’t accept the executive director job when she discovered how difficult CFP’s administrative requirements were. The loss of a CFP grant would have been a serious blow to resource-thin Bridgeport.

Writing CFP grants requires skill and lots of time, as well as a Congressionally mandated dollar-for-dollar match. Various disruptions at USDA since Tuckermanty’s departure have also led to a decline in training and technical assistance. All of this has contributed to an inequitable distribution of CFP funds. As the CFP grant distribution map makes clear, less than 10 percent of grants went to the 13 southern states which have 36% of the country’s population, and most importantly, higher rates of poverty, food insecurity, obesity, and diabetes.

To correct these problems, USDA must:

  • Reinvigorate CFP’s training and technical assistance services
  • Reduce the match to one dollar in non-Federal support for every two dollars of Federal funds
  • Set aside funding for states and regions with the greatest food security needs and lowest resource capabilities
  • And, based on the number of high-quality CFP applications received every year, increase annual funding to $15 million.

CFP holds a special place in the pantheon of small but mighty USDA grant programs. Not only is it the first of what became many Federal initiatives to shore up long-neglected local food systems, it redefined the context for solutions that must come from the community. In other words, CFP gave life and voice to what we now call food democracy.

When Congress established CFP 25 years ago, former Texas Congressman Eligio “Kika” de la Garza referred to it as “…a comprehensive strategy…that incorporates the participation of the community and encourages a greater role for the entire food system.” Letting people determine their community’s needs and devise their own solutions is what CFP has been doing since its inception. It’s time to make those strengths and achievements more prevalent.


Want to Help Get CFP Back on Track?

Members of Congress need to hear from you about CFP—its challenges and its benefits. To both improve and expand CFP, contact members of your state’s congressional delegation and ask them to consider the above bullet points. Additionally,

  • If you are part of a currently funded or recently funded CFP grant, invite your district’s members of congress—senators as well as representatives—to your project site, or schedule an appointment to meet with them to share the news of your good work.
  • Op-ed pieces and letters to the editor as well as social media posts about your CFP project and the impacts are another good way to spread the word.
  • If you are not part of a current CFP project, sending a letter to your members about the grant program’s benefits and urging them to support CFP during the upcoming Farm Bill discussions will be very helpful. Ask your local food policy councils to do the same.
  • After November 2022, repeat steps 1 through 3—people and power will change!