Poor health outcomes and few fresh food options have prompted one Texas college to take the initiative and build ties between small farmers and the local community.
Just south of the Oklahoma border in a rural area of the state, Northeast Texas Community College is starting a mobile food market that would make it the middleman for those farmers and the area’s residents, who have limited fresh food options. That’s due to a $25,000 grant the college received from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“In order for people with small farms to access the marketplace, they need a middleman to teach them how to do it and provide the kind of intermediary steps necessary to connect things like food distribution and marketing,” Northeast Texas President Brad Johnson said.
The college, through the Rural Community College Alliance and the American Association of Community Colleges, applied for funding to create a mobile food market that would purchase produce from the small farmers and resell the items to the Northeast Texas communities. They’re expecting the mobile market to officially begin operation this spring.
“Many of our farmers and ranchers were coming to us and saying, ‘We really need to connect our produce with a distribution facility or a distribution capability to get out into our community,’” said Kevin Rose, associate vice president of workforce development for the college. “At the same time, our president was coming in and saying, ‘Everywhere I look there’s unhealthy living, unhealthy lifestyles, and we would like to do our parts as a community college.’”
Farmers’ markets are pretty commonplace everywhere, including in northeast Texas, but they’ve predominantly been used by middle- and upper-income families, Johnson said, adding that the markets that do exist in the area are pretty unsophisticated in marketing what they have or how much they charge.
One of the challenges to small farmers is that they’re able to produce a wide variety of items, as opposed to some of the larger or more corporate farms that are more specialized.
The largest farmers’ markets that are available to NTCC’s students, faculty and staff, as well as the surrounding residents, are about 100 miles west, in Dallas, Rose said.
“We believe we’re the convener for a broader mission than simply local academic education on our primary campus,” Rose said. “Our desire is to connect with farmers whether through small business planning, so we can have some impact on the sustainability of their operations … and on the consumer side we’re interested in going out to the community and teaching food-cooking classes and healthy eating.”
The college is still working through the details of pricing, and officials are planning to connect the mobile market to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which allows low-income people to use federal assistance for food purchases, Rose said.
Improving the health of the entire area is a top concern for the college. One county -- Morris County -- located within the community college’s jurisdiction is ranked 233 out of 241 on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation County Health rankings, while Camp County is ranked 203 out of 241, according to the rankings.
“Our area of Texas is the poorest and unhealthiest in the state and also the most illiterate,” Johnson said. “Consequently our people’s lifestyle choices, their eating and smoking habits, and so on are pretty seriously out of step with what’s happening nationwide.”
But there’s an additional benefit for the college in creating the programs. By helping the small farmers, they’re also hoping to encourage students to reconsider small, sustainable farming as a potential career.
Northeast Texas has its own 250-acre farm that is part of its associate degree programs in sustainable agriculture, farm and ranch management, and agriculture science. There are currently about 90 students in the college’s agriculture program.
“Here in Texas we’re seeing a retreat of agriculture education,” Rose said. “Our sister institutions are closing agriculture programs and we’re now in a position to grow our program. We need to grow through this, and one way to do that is to help people understand how they can make money in agriculture.”
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