Virginia Opens the Door to ‘Nontraditional Markets’ with Food Access Fund

By Ashley Spinks Dugan

December 30, 2020

Grant program connects markets with farmers and distributors who can improve their access to fresh food.

RICHMOND – Everyone needs fresh food. On Dec. 18, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced the launch of the Virginia Food Access Investment Fund. The new grant program seeks not only to provide low food access areas with more options, but to change the face of retail food businesses. 

Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) Commissioner Jewel Bronaugh said it’s possible Virginia is “the first in the country to have a grant program like this.” 

The Virginia Food Access Investment Fund (VFAIF) will provide grants ranging from $5,000 to $50,000. The goal here is to help retail food providers increase their reach or scope. The program will focus specifically on “vulnerable communities, including BIPOC and low-income individuals who have been disproportionately affected by unequal investment and growth, including a lack of access to capital,” according to the application website. The application portal opened on Dec. 18 and will close April 30, 2021. 

‘They Don’t Need A Lot’

Traditional chain grocery stores can apply for VFAIF grants, but Bronaugh doubts they’ll be interested. The grants are capped at $50,000, which is pocket change to some of the larger stores. VDACS wants to invest in “nontraditional markets,” Bronaugh said. These markets can stretch grant money farther and often only need a few resources to greatly increase their efficacy. 

“Certainly when you look at nontraditional markets and retail opportunities, they don’t need a lot to take their idea very far,” Bronaugh said. The key to addressing low food access, she explained, is to meet people where they are with healthy, affordable food. 

In more urban areas, this often means supplementing the inventory of existing corner stores. “Whatever you use or purchase with the grant funds is going to be an effort to improve the access of fresh fruit and vegetables,” Bronaugh said. “In marginalized communities…a grocery store could expand if they’re going to have a section with more fresh food. Or it may be a corner store that sells a lot of ‘junk food,’ and now they want to carry fresh products. They can buy refrigeration,” she explained.

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Virginia Education and Access 

John Bryant isn’t sure if a “food desert” technically exists in downtown Roanoke. But for low-income folks, accessing fresh, healthful food is a challenge. Bryant is the marketing manager for the Roanoke Co-Op in western Virginia. The co-op hasn’t decided whether to apply for a VFAIF grant, but he said the issue of food access is top-of-mind for the cooperative’s leadership.

Whether someone lives in rural or urban Virginia, reliable, affordable transportation is often the biggest barrier to accessing fresh food. Yes, it’s true the surrounding Roanoke County has several chain grocery stores, Bryant said. However, in some parts of the area, residents without cars may walk three miles or more to access produce. 

“To walk to a grocery store would be very hard. Even a bus line to some folks is expensive,” Bryant said. He said folks who live in the inner city are “only shopping once or twice a month. At that point, it’s probably not fresh food. A lot of times it’s boxed and has lots of preservatives,” he explained.

Bad eating habits tend to be cyclical over generations, Bryant said, so educating folks in conjunction with increasing access is important. Roanoke Co-Op has supported Healthy Roanoke Valley for years as it tries to provide that education. Bryant agreed with Bronaugh’s view on reaching folks where they are. “Convenience stores are probably the best way to (increase) access,” he said. “Put bananas, lettuce, a bunch of stuff in there. But without education, it’s not going to sell next to a 99 cent bag of Doritos.” 

Nontraditional Markets in Virginia

In 2012, Roanoke Co-Op purchased a plot of land from the city to try its hand at farming its own food. By Bryant’s own admission, the endeavor was a “failure,” but he said the land is being used more productively now, in terms of combatting low food access. 

The co-op leases the land to Roanoke’s Local Environmental Agriculture Project (LEAP), which runs the farmers market. The organization also uses the space for “composting, education and packing,” Bryant said. “They bring in local vendors and then pack (produce) for the markets. They have a mobile market to serve those in underserved areas,” he added. It’s these types of alternative and innovative projects that Bronaugh listed as prime candidates for VFAIF grants.

Affordability and Community-Mindedness 

In addition to ensuring food is available in these low-income and marginalized communities, Bronaugh said, VDACS wants to make sure people can afford it. 

That’s why all projects funded by VFAIF will be required to accept SNAP benefits and to offer Virginia Fresh Match Incentives. The Roanoke Co-Op already does both, but Bryant acknowledged that the store’s natural and organic offerings are still pricey for some.

“The trick I think is…our product is a little bit of a premium in price, so people that are hungry and can’t afford transportation, we’re not quite hitting that demographic,” Bryant said. “We have a SNAP program,” he said, and added that Virginia Fresh Match was recently expanded to include both fresh and frozen produce. It also suspended the limit on matching funds. All these things help low-income folks access fresh food, which Roanoke Co-Op buys largely from local farmers. Still, “it would be great to make our food affordable to folks that really need it,” Bryant said—all of them. 

Bronaugh said VDACS wants to invest in projects with this kind of community-mindedness. So it included an interview portion in the grant application process. “We are going to have an interview process where representatives from the community…will have an opportunity to actually come and speak on behalf of the project,” Bronaugh explained. Historically, BIPOC projects or leaders have struggled to access commercial credit. The VFAIF seeks to right that wrong. “You have to look at alternative means of determining whether they’ll be successful,” she said. 

Ashley Spinks Dugan is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected].

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