USDA investment supports local and regional food and farm entrepreneurs
Rural Missouri community development corporation New Growth will co-lead the new Heartland Regional Foods Business Center with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) through a $25 million cooperative agreement award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Heartland Regional Foods Business Center is among 12 such centers the USDA will establish to serve all areas of the country. The Heartland Center will serve Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Iowa.
New Growth and UNL’s Rural Prosperity Nebraska will develop and deliver Heartland Center services with 31 additional non-profit organizations, and tribal and indigenous groups, among others (see list below). New Growth provides small business development assistance and microenterprise financing in a 15-county region between Springfield, MO, and Kansas City. Its Food Systems Program works across the greater Kansas City region to help farmers and ranchers meet growing demand for local foods.
The Heartland Center’s purpose is to connect and strengthen locally grown food system businesses. It will not operate a physical “center” but rather coordinate and build capacity and collaboration among on-the-ground partners supporting local and regional food system businesses. Direct “Business Builder” grants to those entrepreneurs represent 53% of funds awarded to the Heartland Center for four years. The Heartland Center will also operate an online interactive platform where buyers, sellers, producers, processors and market managers can communicate and collaborate locally.
“USDA is excited to be partnering with Rural Prosperity Nebraska on this innovative and unprecedented initiative,” said Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Jenny Lester Moffitt. “By leveraging the expertise now available through these Regional Food Centers, USDA can offer unique support for local food systems development across the country.”
Katie Nixon, New Growth Food Systems Director, said the Heartland Center will advance the region’s ability to put local food on more tables and help small farmers thrive in rural, as well as urban communities.
“Over the last several decades, the power and control of our food system has increasingly gone to large agri-business,” she said. “The small to medium size farms that often embrace social, environmental and economic sustainability have been left to fend for themselves in an increasingly challenging system. This Center is for these businesses, to help them succeed and provide good food for their communities in a way that helps them sustain their farming and ranching operations.”
Nixon will serve as the Heartland Center’s co-director with Mary Emery, executive director of Rural Prosperity Nebraska. Emery said the award would help paint a clear picture of the farmers, distributors and other major players in the region’s local food system.
“You have all these different entities working with local foods — producers, grocery stores, local distributors, non-profits, business developers … and these are all puzzle pieces,” she said. “But we’ve never put the pieces together. What we want to do with this project is put the puzzle together and see the picture of how regional food systems work.”
The inspiration for the Heartland Center’s proposal came from recognizing how underserved populations in rural and urban communities often struggle to easily access local and healthy foods. The COVID-19 pandemic further exposed the extent to which communities are vulnerable; global supply chain shocks from processing and shipping disruptions left many without fresh foods. This project emphasizes the need and opportunity to rethink local and regional food supply chains, and how to strengthen them.
Sheridan Garman-Neeman is New Growth’s Chief Community Wealth Building Officer. She said New Growth’s work through the Heartland Center will advance the rural community development corporation’s mission to build local ownership and lasting livelihoods.
“Small farms are fundamental to the health and wealth of small towns,” she said. “Building their capacity to serve nearby markets will benefit local economies, protect natural resources, and increase fresh and healthy food options.”
Heartland Regional Foods Business Center Partners: University of Nebraska-Lincoln, New Growth Community Development Corporation, Center for Rural Affairs, Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim, Great Plains Indigenous Water Food and Trade Coalition, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Kansas Rural Center, Kansas State University Research and Extension, KC Healthy Kids, Kerr Center for Sustainable Ag, No More Empty Pots, Oklahoma State University Food and Agricultural Products Center, The Food Conservancy, University of Missouri Extension.
New Growth is a rural Missouri community development corporation based in west central Missouri and affiliated with West Central Missouri Community Action Agency. New Growth’s mission is to build local ownership and lasting livelihoods from deep rural roots. Programs include the 15-county New Growth Women’s Business Center, New Growth Capital credit building and micro-enterprise financing, and the START HERE Business Acceleration Network. Learn more: https://www.newgrowthmo.org/.