CHAPEL HILL - Valerie Stewart, a program officer with the Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, called Farmer Foodshare executive director Margaret Gifford one day not long ago and asked whether they could meet at Gifford’s office.
“I had to say, ‘Um ... how do you feel about 3 Cups?” Gifford recalled. “We don’t have an office. We rotate among the local coffee shops: Open Eye, Caffee Driade, 3 Cups, Looking Glass. ... It’s a very shoestring operation.”
Farmer Foodshare may be able to buy actual shoes now.
The BCBS Foundation has awarded the grassroots nonprofit organization a $450,000 grant to expand its programs, which connect local farmers with local organizations that distribute food to communities at risk of hunger and malnutrition.
“We look for opportunities to support programs that have built models that work locally, and to help them build their capacity,” said Jennifer MacDougall, the Healthy Active Communities senior program officer for the BCBS Foundation. “We’re excited to help support Farmer Foodshare’s work to increase access to healthy food.”
The BCBS Foundation funding, which comes on top of an $8,000 grant from the Strowd Roses Foundation, is 10 times the size of Farmer Foodshare’s previous biggest grant. It’s a dramatic boost for a small organization that is just three years old and still counts many of its donations one dollar bill at a time.
“It’s very exciting, and we are extremely grateful,” said Gifford, who started Farmer Foodshare in 2009 with a single “donation station” at the Carrboro Farmers Market. “I think what it tells us is that this idea, which so many people developed together, is good idea.”
The BCBS money will be distributed over the next three years and will help Farmer Foodshare establish basic facilities and functions – an office, equipment, insurance, logistics and so on – and then, in the second and third years, expand and collaborate with other communities throughout the state.
“This grant is a huge step, and I think it’s so important that it’s targeted for capacity building,” said Sarah Blacklin, market manager for the Carrboro Farmers Market and a board member of Farmer Foodshare. “It puts solid legs under the program. It allows it to grow. Farmer Foodshare is a model, and this lets us work to adapt it in other parts of the state.”
By the terms of the grant, none of that funding will go to food purchases; Farmer Foodshare will continue to depend on donations for that.
“We’ve always been very frugal, and we will continue that,” Gifford said. “That’s one of the things that’s good about working with farmers – they’re really frugal. It’s a great example.”
Farmer Foodshare has three part-time staff members in addition to Gifford and an ever-shifting complement of volunteers – about 200 of them over the past three years.
The organization links local farmers and hunger-relief groups primarily through three main programs.
• Donation Stations at 13 Triangle-area farmers markets encourage shoppers to buy extra produce from vendors and drop it into the Donation Station basket. Shoppers can donate cash, which Farmer Foodshare uses to buy food at the market, and farmers often donate leftover produce at the end of the market. All the food is delivered the same day to a local agency for distribution.
• Pennies on the Pound, or POP, is a program in which Farmer Foodshare helps arrange direct purchases of food by approved hunger-relief groups from farmers, usually at a discount.
• FreshKids is a program in which Farmer Foodshare buys food from farmers for two hunger-relief programs for children: the TABLE program in Orange County and Fuel Up! in Chatham County.
Since its founding, Farmer Foodshare has put more than $90,000 into farmer’s pockets and provided more than 110,000 pounds of fresh food to agencies in six counties, Gifford said. The BCBS Foundation funding will help spread the model throughout the state.
“I feel better knowing we’re not just taking, but we’re giving too,” she said. “You have to make it work for everybody.
“I can’t stress enough that it’s the farmers who make this happen. Without them, we have nothing. I always tell people, ‘No farms, no food.’”