A new national grant has the potential to improve access to locally grown food in Columbia, Missouri, and beyond.
A recent United States Department of Agriculture grant awarded to a trio of food-centered collaborators – Columbia market Root Cellar, The Loop Community Improvement District and Greenbelt Land Trust of Mid-Missouri – will broaden opportunities for local food access in mid-Missouri. The collaborative is the sole Missouri recipient of the Local Food Promotion Program grant for the 2021 fiscal year.
Root Cellar co-owner Chelsea Davis says that the grant, amounting to more than half a million dollars, will help the local food movement further take root in the community, a timely advent after the pandemic highlighted the challenges of the global food system. Davis, however, saw a stark contrast with local food.
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“One thing that we learned during the pandemic was that the local food system is incredibly resilient,” she says. “We are able to feed our neighbors, unlike big box stores that are relying on products coming in from California or Florida or overseas.”
The empty supermarket shelves seen time and again during the past three years have caused shoppers to consider alternate food sources, and Root Cellar saw those changes firsthand.
“Our subscription boxes went way up, because we had so many people who wanted to have access to healthy, clean food, and they didn't have a way to get it,” Davis says. “We want to continue to grow that program, because we know that it can be bigger than it even is right now … we have this ability to feed ourselves and feed our own community first. I think that was something that was really critical to remember, especially during a crisis, and we just need to work on strengthening the system that has been created thus far.”
In this case, along with broadening the scope of producers, strength comes by embracing technological advances. While customers took advantage of curbside meal delivery and grocery pickup from supermarkets, Root Cellar took notice of these advantages and plans to implement online shopping and local pickup with grant funds.
“Convenience is a factor for consumers,” Davis says. “We recognize that and we want to make sure that if you're not able to get out and go to the farmers' market every week, then you still have an outlet to support the farmers that are growing in your community on a weekly basis – we want to serve as that outlet.”
Furthered by its new brick-and-mortar location on Rogers Street in Columbia's Arcade District, the funds will allow Root Cellar to implement an online shopping component for customers and expand product availability. That's where the collaboration comes in. The triangle of partners – Davis, Loop CID director Carrie Gardner and Greenbelt Land Trust director Mike Powell – are all vital to the project.
“They're just very much involved in the local food system, in different aspects, obviously, but they have a connection to wanting to eat local, they have a connection to wanting to give farmers more access, and consumers more access,” Davis says. “So when we had this idea for the grant, they seemed like perfect partners to bring into the fold. It came together really easily because of their connection and our relationships that we had already established.”
Greenbelt Land Trust, for example, helps farmers hold on to their land instead of selling to developers or other interested parties.
“They really want farmers to be able to stay on the land and have long-term success,” Davis says. “Transitioning lands or lands that are changing hands from one generation to another, sometimes it's easy to want to sell that property and just go into development. But if there is a path forward for a family member to take it over and actually turn it into a business, or it's already a profitable business, they’re less likely to sell that land, and it's going to stay in some type of agricultural process.”
By encouraging landowners to continue agricultural endeavors, Root Cellar’s producer partnerships will also continue to grow. Those farmers could then work with the Loop CID, which runs the COMO Cooks Kitchen, a community kitchen space available to rent. The current kitchen space, situated inside Mizzou North, is slated for demolition, but planning for a new space is already underway. Making the space available removes barriers for farmers and other business owners who are looking to make value-added products.
The projects funded by the three-year grant will roll out in phases, most immediately creating job opportunities within each of the three organizations (more details will be released in the coming weeks). In the meantime, Davis says the overall focus will remain on the resilience of local food.
“We need to keep reminding [consumers] and encouraging them to think local first,” she says.
Davis hopes to drive questions such as, “Is there a way that I can support a local farmer?" and "Is there a program out there or a store that I can shop that really prioritizes local first?” Thanks to this grant, she says, the answer is a resounding yes.
“There’s going to be a lot of opportunities,” she says. “It's a very big deal for us.”
Root Cellar, 1203 Roger St., Suite 101, Columbia, Missouri, 573.443.5055, rootcellarmo.com