Accessibility of COVID-19 Emergency Funding for Small-Scale and BIPOC Farmers

By Sadie Fleig, UC Berkeley undergraduate research intern

As the pandemic continues, farmers have struggled to maintain connections to a severely disrupted supply chain. With many restaurants and businesses having shut down or operating in limited capacity, farmers have incurred major losses. To help, the United States Department of Agriculture implemented two rounds of a Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP), as well as an additional food box program and emergency loan assistance. However, small-scale and BIPOC farmers often face major hurdles in applying for federal programs such as these. My research focused on assessing farmer relief programs for their level of accessibility to socially disadvantaged farmers.

Overall, federal funding programs fundamentally do not have structures in place to support small-scale farmers. The majority of federal programs deliver payments that align well with the standardized rates for large monoculture farms. In contrast, diversified and smaller-scale growers tend to finance themselves with a variety of local and direct-to-consumer channels. This allows them to receive income at a rate pertinent to their location and consumer base, which is not reflected in the USDA’s acreage or specialty crop percentage rates. In combination with farm subsidy loopholes, this discrepancy is demonstrated in the payment amounts for the first CFAP round, with $1.2 billion (20%) of the first $5.6 billion dollars in payments going to the top 1% of recipients, versus $1.5 million (0.26%) going to the bottom 10% (Rampgopal and Lehren, 2020). Furthermore, the top 10 percent of recipients received average payments of almost $95,000, while the bottom 10 percent averaged around $300.

In addition, federal relief program or loan applications are burdensome for most small scale farmers, as these forms are complex and come with few instructions or definition of terms, requiring extensive background knowledge. This creates a considerable barrier and a significant disadvantage for any farmers with English as a second language or farmers who have had minimal experience filling out government documentation.

In spite of federal shortfalls, community based and non-profit organizations such as Community Alliance with Family Farmers and California FarmLink played an important role in mobilizing and administering community based and federal funds to support small-scale farmers during the pandemic. UC Cooperative extension provided vital technical assistance with CFAP applications for small-scale farmers with English as a second language. Organizations based in the community have a better understanding of the circumstances those farmers are undergoing and are important partners in relief efforts.

After careful review of the CFAP programs by the Biden administration, the USDA announced the “USDA Pandemic Assistance for Producers,” initiative to distribute resources more equitably. The current CFAP program will fall under this initiative. According to Vilsack, “Our new USDA Pandemic Assistance for Producers initiative will help get financial assistance to a broader set of producers, including to socially disadvantaged communities, small and medium sized producers, and farmers and producers of less traditional crops.”

In order to improve upon the discrepancies in programs for socially disadvantaged farmers, there should be an effort to amplify the support models that benefit BIPOC farmers and in the long term, advocate for those models to be utilized by the USDA. One general intersection point between determining local conditions and national funding are the local FSA offices that review their county’s CFAP applications, which is a good way to begin to implement services that cater more directly to BIPOC farmers. Although application forms are available in Spanish, it would be useful for FSA offices to offer forms in multiple languages, particularly those that are regionally prevalent. In terms of form simplification, the definitions sheet attached to the applications, should be expanded to aid growers in completion, and a general guide to the USDA loan documentation is needed. It is essential for federal agencies, particularly regarding agriculture, to begin to fulfill the critical needs of BIPOC farmers.

Urban farming: the Good, the Bad, and the Bugly

Urban farming: the Good, the Bad, and the Bugly

Urban farming: the Good, the Bad, and the Bugly

Cover photo: “Parasitized mummy” by sea-kangaroo , licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

By: Prof. Josh Arnold (Warren Wilson University and Growing Roots teammate)

The joys of urban farming and gardening bear fruit but not without unique frustrations. Pests thrive amid your efforts, and smart growing practices can ease these headaches, improve the health of our plants, and increase their production. It is a common belief that insects in your garden and farm — especially those you cannot identify — are there to eat your plants. Sometimes they aren’t but sometimes they are. It can often seem impossible to rid your plants of them, especially for urban farmers.

There is a reason for that: Insects in urban agriculture exist and persist in a very unique environment. 

Cities are special

In cities, a host of landscape-scale factors create ideal habitats for garden pests. Herbivorous insects thrive in the warmer microclimates found in urban areas. This small increase in heat shortens insect generation times (read: more insects per season), enables them to lay more eggs, and sometimes even makes them larger. Landscaping in urban areas can also exacerbate pest issues. The plants and trees in urban landscaping typically fall into opposite ends of the management spectrum, either left to fend for themselves or maintained through intensive care regimes. Both of these conditions, leading to either stressed out or very vigorous plants, can make these a target for pest insects, and even, in the former case, decrease the plant’s ability to defend itself against insect attacks. Then, these urban landscapes can become a source for very persistent pest insects that might affect your crops. 

Research behind urban insects

Small urban farms and gardens are complex ecosystems, and crop pests’ ecological management can feel incredibly daunting, especially in the absence of pesticides (which many urban farmers forego for health and environmental reasons). However, research shows that two practical and straightforward actions can help you fend off pests and related crop damage: 

  1. Grow more flowers
  2. Leave more leaf litter on the ground

Why more flowers? 

Flowers not only help pollinators, they also benefit one of the most critical insect allies in our gardens: the parasitoid wasp. Parasitoids lay their eggs INSIDE other insects, often pest insects, and their “baby” (larva) eats these insects from the inside. Then from the empty shell of its former host emerges a small, fully-grown, stingless wasp. (Think the movie, Alien). While parasitoid wasps use other insects to complete their life cycles, they depend on nectar and pollen found in common garden flowers to sustain themselves. They need these floral resources in order to stick around and parasitize pest insects. The practice of growing more and diverse flowers is sometimes referred to as “floral provisioning.”

Why more leaf litter? 

Spiders eat various pests (and sometimes your beneficial insects as well!) and utilize leaf litter for habitat, shelter, and more diverse food sources. Mulch is good, but leaf litter seems better. They are most impacted by anything that doesn’t allow them to move from habitat to habitat — think roads and other linear features that may restrict movement. So you have to build small “nature preserves” for them on your land. These areas can be spaces that haven’t been very productive, or they just may be hard to get to. These “reserves” have been shown to increase the diversity and abundance of spider garden friends. As an added bonus, more leaf litter and mulch cover are also related to an increased abundance of parasitoid wasps at urban agriculture sites, which may result in greater pest control in your garden. 

Our East Bay research

Starting in 2017, our research through Sustainable Urban Farming for Resilience and Food Security project focuses a lot on growing practices and technologies that increase the ecological resilience, sustainability, and economic viability of urban farms. Researching beneficial insects and their habitats is a core part of that. During the 2018 and 2019 growing seasons, a team of undergrad students and I visited urban farms in the East Bay every two weeks and captured parasitoid wasps on common garden flowers and brassica crops. 

We found that overall diversity and abundance of parasitoid wasps and associated pest control rates were affected by increased diversity of flowers at each site. While we did not find a strong relationship with any specific type of flower, other research has shown that flowers with umbelliferous inflorescences (a lot of little flowers in one big flower!), like fennel, yarrow, cilantro, etc., are great for increasing the abundance of beneficial insects. You can read our fuller review article here.

Smart practices

During our time in urban farms and gardens, we found that most gardeners and farmers we partnered with were already growing many flowers. Still, going beyond the number of flowers you have on your land, think about having flowers throughout the year. And consider that both the number and diversity of flowers matter. 

And have fun experimenting! You can set aside some space, if you have it, for perennials (trees, shrubs, etc.) and let some of that leaf litter build-up. Maybe even plant more flowers in these spaces for added benefits.

These smart growing practices, even all together, will not solve all of your beneficial or pest insect problems. But we know that what is happening on the farm or in the garden is much more important than what is happening off your site. Implementation of the two main practices (floral provisioning and increased ground cover) will be site-specific, and you will still always have some pests. Still, it might just help you even out the pest pressures! And they’re a great way to beautify your land and increase the vibrant biodiversity in our cities. 

Want to learn and explore more about smart growing practices like these for your farm or garden? Tune in during the first two weeks of March 2021 for our special virtual conference “The Agroecological City.” We think you’ll particularly enjoy the interactive session on “Strengthening agroecological resilience in the city” from 10am-12pm on Wednesday March 10th. 

Know Your Farmer: Guillermo Vasquez, Indigenous Permaculture Project

Farmer Guillermo Vasquez in front of the mobile (bus!) pantries of the Indigenous Permaculture Project. Credit: M. Doshi

This month, Growing Roots teammate Marit Doshi had the opportunity to connect with Guillermo Vasquez, head of the Indigenous Permaculture Project here in the Bay Area. Observing COVID safety guidelines, they visited while walking around one of the Project’s vibrant and inviting farms, this one in Oakland’s San Antonio neighborhood.

Tell us about the Project’s goals and accomplishments

Growing food for the community right on top of concrete!

To begin, Guillermo gives “thanks one, two, three times to our creators and makers for everything.” He and others started the Project in 2002, working with local communities and Indigenous peoples, as part of “our obligation to bring in mother Earth’s way of thinking.” The Project empowers low-income peoples across the Bay Area to understand how we are all connected and to respond directly to intertwined food, nutrition, and health challenges. In particular, Vasquez and others share Indigenous science as part of traditional farming. They now manage three sites in Oakland, Treasure Island, and Berkeley and also have a mobile food pantry going weekly to Oakland and San Francisco. The Project also provides extensive training for aspiring farmers and  gardeners in March-September. While the training is free, the students have to offer their full commitment to implement a project in their own community for one year, bringing in their own culture and family history. Even during COVID, 8 students safely completed a shortened training course. Through all this work, Guillermo and others have learned that “you can grow anything as long as you have space and water!”

What are the key sources of support for the Project?

Ever since 2002, the Project has had little to no grants or guaranteed funding. So they work with the resources at hand in their low-income communities. Without money, Guillermo has seen that “you create your own resources” from within the community, and while that’s really (really) challenging, that enables “you [to] understand the community.” In Oakland, an Episcopal Church provides space and water access in their church parking lot while in Berkeley, the Ecology Center helps with the EcoHouse site. The Project also does receive small, targeted grants, such as a recent one from the Rose Foundation to provide care and boxes for bees. This year the SF Foundation and the Berkeley Food Network have provided COVID19 response support, including supplementary food for the mobile pantry. 

How do you engage with other farmers in the East Bay?

“Tiguanceguite = working together.” Urban farmers and community gardeners are “my heroes,” says Guillermo. The Project supports other East Bay farmers when possible, helping out when they’re busy, and definitely drawing on them for continued inspiration. And several community gardens contribute to the food provided by the Project’s mobile pantry.

What would you like to see change or improve for urban ag in the East Bay?

Guillermo would love to see more available East Bay space used for urban ag and community gardening. They were able to utilize an old parking lot! Additionally, he would like there to be further recognition, in policy and other spheres, of the different reality and knowledge of urban farmers. He ticked off the challenges of pollution, water access, micro-climates, vandalism, and funding. All that knowledge, held by urban farmers, “cannot be disconnected from growing the food.” In other words, urban farmers have a lot more to offer to their neighborhoods and cities than many realize! 

What else would you like folks to know about the Project and your work?

Project farm site in Oakland’s San Antonio neighborhood

Guillermo first had a message for all urban farmers and healthy, local food champions: “Don’t stop what you’re doing.” He encouraged us all to bring our love to this work because it is love and health, mentally and spiritually. Additionally, he flagged that the Project is looking for space! Specifically, in this time of ongoing COVID19-induced need, they are hoping to acquire access to 3 acres to grow more food and have a long-term training site. Plus, they are raising funds for cold storage and a teaching kitchen container at the Oakland site. Contact Guillermo directly if you have leads on space, cold storage, and funding:!

Sustainable East Bay Urban Farming project team’s message for Black Lives Matter

As a team of academics and practitioners working together on an urban agriculture and food security project in the San Francisco East Bay Area, we wish to express our outrage and sorrow over the recent murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and other Black Americans. These murders were enabled by the systemic racism embedded in our nation’s cultures, governance structure, and economies.

Agriculture in the U.S., and the fortune of the U.S., was built on the enslavement and exploitation of Black people and the theft of Indigenous land. Today, approximately 75% of the current labor force on US farms is Indigenous and Latinx-identifying –– many who had to leave their own farms due to policies that have disenfranchised rural communities around the world. In sharp contrast, White people account for 96% of the owners, 97% of the value, and 98% of the acresof private U.S. agricultural land. This is not an accident, nor has it always been this way. Decades of racist agricultural policies have systematically discriminated against Black farmers, resulting in Black farmers owning between 16-19 million acres in 1910 to only 1.5 million in 1997. From slavery to present day, our agricultural system has always relied upon the labor of Black and Indigenous peoples of color—often denying them  labor protections and voting rights—and land grabs via the displacement of Black and Indigenous peoples of color from their homes.* We see how this structural racism continues into today in the East Bay, undergirding many of the barriers that East Bay urban farmers face.

The inequities in food production reflect those in food access and security. Almost 800,000 San Francisco Bay Area residents experience food insecurity, with the highest rates (12%) in the East Bay. Often referred to as a food desert, the East Bay fails to provide affordable, equitable access to fresh, healthy and culturally-diverse foods for low-income and often historically marginalized communities. Community food insecurity is interwoven with racialized economic disparities, which are prevalent in the East Bay. People are going hungry as they sacrifice meals to pay for the high cost of living. Across the nation and here at home, COVID-19 has magnified these disparities as thousands have lost their jobs and food distribution channels have fractured, leaving the most vulnerable even more exposed.

Black, Indigenous, and People of Color’s (BIPOC) bodies are threatened by the current social and economic systems which are built on land and labor stolen from BIPOC communities. Similarly, our work, and the benefits we derive from it professionally, are only possible through the labor, time, and sacrifice of urban farmers, many of whom are BIPOC. Without careful consideration, and significant stakeholder input, our work reinforces the very systems and power dynamics we seek to dismantle.

We must dismantle these systems of oppression. We pledge to increase our commitment to BIPOC community members: centering you, amplifying your leadership, and transferring power to you. We acknowledge and apologize for instances where we have not done this successfully, or if prior researchers, academic and otherwise, have not sufficiently shared research results with the communities served. We invite feedback on our process. While this particular project ends in a few months, many of our teammates are actively deepening our service to our Bay Area communities. We pledge to engage in ongoing learning and sharing of resources that aim to end anti-Blackness and racism in our food system; to leverage university resources in service of BIPOC farmers and food system change-makers; and to engage in a process with BIPOC community partners to deepen meaningful relationships and restructure our processes to enable more equitable project development, publications, outreach, learning and funding. 

We encourage you to reach out to or in conversation with teammates whom you know to offer feedback or if you are interested in participating in these decisions and actions moving forward.

We encourage you to reach out to or in conversation with teammates whom you know to offer feedback or if you are interested in participating in these decisions and actions moving forward.

Mandela Partners: Swiftly changing to be in service to their communities during crisis

Mandela Community Meals Partner- Thank Que Grill

For over 15 years, folks at Mandela Partners have supported an East Bay regional food system that serves local farmers of color and low-income, low-access communities. Via its food hub – Mandela Produce Distribution – Mandela Partners sources sustainably grown-produce from local growers and distributes through a network of food access programs, independent grocery stores, and community-based businesses. But when the pandemic hit in March, they had to change up their model and fast. They re-focused their efforts on providing free CSA-style produce bags and produce-based meals which meant reconfiguring their warehouse and repurposing partners’ restaurant kitchens. They still play their role as a trusted, caring food distributor and community-connector, but how that is expressed shifted in a big way. Interim Executive Director, Mariela Cedeño, chalks up Mandela Partners’ ability to quickly meet their communities’ changed needs to their deep, multi-year relationships in the local food system — community groups, local businesses and small growers, and even funders — and to their organizational culture that prioritizes equitable community-based work.

Emergency relief produce site

In the midst of that rapid spin and subsequent months, the Mandela Partners team has seen afresh the inefficiencies of the conventional food supply chain and the inequities embedded in our current food systems. Mariela says, “The impact of Covid-19 has been severe – the communities we serve are at most risk of contracting Covid, have been the most impacted economically by Covid, and are dealing with higher levels of food insecurity prior to and as a result of Covid. Covid-19 has shed light on and exacerbated the food access and economic inequities that low-income communities of color have been enduring for a long time.” Furthermore, resources to support food insecure communities have left out the small businesses that are part of these communities. For instance, while admirable, the state-run and locally administered “Great Plates Delivered” program for at-risk adults, precluded many local smaller-scale food-makers. So, Mandela Partners is piloting their own community meal program with eight of their local partners.

Mariela wants to leave us with the strong message that this continued pandemic time should serve as a reality check. Our East Bay food systems cannot go back to what they were before pandemic. Our inequitable systems weren’t working then for many East Bay residents, and they won’t work after. So let’s make the needed changes stick! And groups like Mandela Partners are still hustling to support their communities. If you’re able, your continued or new support to their Emergency Relief Fund will go a long way!

Heartfelt thank you card for Mandela Partners!