The Community Farm at Roundabout Meadows isn’t a typical farm.
Volunteers bob up and down between leafy, green rows as they pick tomatoes and peppers on a hot Virginia summer morning. However, these vegetables are not destined for grocery store shelves or the local farmers market. All of the produce will be donated to local hunger relief organizations.
Farms like this one, supporters say, are an answer to one of the biggest challenges facing the United States today: food insecurity.
In 2019, there were 35.2 million people who didn’t have enough to eat in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger relief organization, estimated that during the COVID-19 pandemic this number increased to more than 45 million.
In recent months, Feeding America’s network of 200 food banks continues to report 60% more need than this time last year. In addition, pandemic-related disruptions to complex food supply chains early on in 2020 caused hunger relief organizations to have trouble getting food.
Despite the ongoing pandemic, Roundabout Meadows tripled production, donating more than 25,000 pounds of produce to Loudoun Hunger Relief, a local food pantry. Other nonprofit farms in northern Virginia have seen similar trends. This took place even as traditional food supply chains faced disruptions.
Nonprofit farms have been able to provide thousands of pounds of fresh produce, thanks to community volunteers. Over the past year, there have been more volunteers than ever before.
This increased community involvement may be a lasting impact of the pandemic, supporters say. By engaging community members, nonprofit farms are encouraging broader conversations about food insecurity and the role agriculture plays in all our lives. This type of community giving has a big impact—one that will keep on growing.
“Especially with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are having conversations about food insecurity and hunger in a much more mainstream media way. It’s becoming part of daily conversations in a way that it wasn’t in the past,” says Dana Melby, farm manager of the Community Farm at Roundabout Meadows.
“I foresee that this model of community giving and engagement will increase in the years to come.”
It’s easy to see how the Community Farm at Roundabout Meadows got its name.
Located in Aldie, northern Virginia, the 140-acre property is in the center of three traffic circles. This area of Loudoun County, known as Gilberts Corner, represents the transition between growing urban development and suburban neighborhoods to the rural, agricultural part of the country.
Roundabout Meadows was established in 2019 by the Piedmont Environmental Council, a nonprofit organization with the mission of “promoting and protecting the natural resources, rural economy, history and beauty of the Virginia Piedmont.” The property hosts the community farm, protected wildlife habitat, and 70 acres of pasture. Driving up to the farm to volunteer, it is not unusual to pass a few grazing cows.
Financial support is essential for this kind of farm model. This is one reason why nonprofit farms are uncommon. Once started, grants or financial supporters allow nonprofit farms to donate all the produce harvested and support their communities. Partnerships with local hunger relief organizations like food pantries allow farms to distribute their harvest to a wide network.
As the largest food pantry in Loudoun County, Loudoun Hunger Relief helps nonprofit farms like Roundabout Meadows distribute their produce. Loudoun Hunger has the infrastructure to pick up the produce from farms and store it so it stays fresh. This makes it easier on the nonprofit farms because they don’t have to coordinate pickups with multiple hunger relief organizations. This also allows the farms to have a small staff—sometimes only one or two people.
Loudoun Hunger notifies other smaller food pantries and hunger relief organizations as well to help distribute the farm produce to a wider network. Produce goes directly from being harvested by volunteers to the families that hunger relief organizations serve.
During COVID-19, this direct, local source that didn’t go through a complex supply chain was essential. Many food pantries in northern Virginia saw an almost fourfold increase in need.
“[Our food pantry partners] had lines of families trying to get food that wrapped around their building several times,” describes Samantha Kuhn, executive director of JK Community Farm, another nonprofit farm in northern Virginia.
This increase in food insecurity was met with food system breakdowns at the start of the pandemic. Looming lockdowns led many to stock up on food at grocery stores. Restaurants and other businesses closed until further notice. Food supply saw changes in demand that resulted in empty grocery store shelves and food being wasted.
“It was the perfect storm of issues all the way through from farmers to the end purchaser,” says Jennifer Montgomery, executive director of Loudoun Hunger Relief.
Hunger relief organizations also had a hard time getting food. For Loudoun Hunger Relief, over half of its food was recovered from local sources prior to the pandemic and they had to pivot to other sources.
Unlike sources that go through long supply chains, nonprofit farms like the Community Farm at Roundabout Meadows were largely unaffected by food system breakdowns. The farms were still able to donate produce to food pantries because they are a local source independent from larger, complex supply chains.
“Now more than ever we’re so grateful to have [nonprofit farms] in our community,” Montgomery says.
Samantha Kuhn, executive director of JK Community Farm, continued the family business but with a twist.
Kuhn’s father, Chuck Kuhn, is the founder and president of JK Moving Services, the largest independent moving company in the United States. While attending the University of Tennessee to study biochemistry, Samantha Kuhn worked at a community farm in Knoxville. She had an interest in nutrition and was inspired by the work the farm was doing to provide fresh produce to the community.
Kuhn wanted to start a nonprofit farm in her own community. Upon returning to Virginia, she pitched the idea to her dad. In 2018, JK Moving donated land in Loudoun County to be used for JK Community Farm.
“I was talking to him to see if there is an option for us to do something similar in Virginia because a lot of the food pantries didn’t have any fresh food. The food that they were receiving from the grocery stores a lot of times was at the end of its shelf life and just had bleached a lot of its nutrient density.”
Fresh produce is often one of the weaker links in food pantries in the United States. According to a study published in the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition, lack of refrigerators, long transportation times, and amount of local produce available are barriers to many hunger relief organizations providing fresh produce.
Food pantries and other hunger relief organizations typically get their food from regional food banks, donations, or grocery stores. Recovered food from local grocery stores is a vital source for many food pantries. Before COVID-19, recovered food from local stores made up half of the food Loudoun Hunger Relief provided.
Food pantries are assigned grocery store pickups by the food bank of which they are a member. Virginia has seven food banks, and member food pantries are determined by county. Loudoun Hunger Relief is a member of the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank.
Feeding America runs the food bank system in the United States. It is a network of 200 food banks. These are the regional organizations that supply food in bulk and provide transportation, storage, and financial support to direct service organizations like food pantries and soup kitchens. Food banks also complete inspection of facilities for their member food pantries.
“I always describe it like Feeding America is the mothership,” says Montgomery, executive director of Loudoun Hunger Relief. “They’re the big, national organization that fights hunger in our country.”
While grocery store recovery is an important and vital source for food pantries, it comes with its own challenges.
Most food in grocery stores is shipped from across the country, or even the world. After going through a long distribution network and sitting on grocery store shelves, once-fresh food is nearing the end of its shelf life. Food pantry volunteers then sort through the donations and get rid of any produce that has gone bad. With fresh, just-picked produce from nonprofit farms, food pantries don’t have to worry about that.
“We don’t have to worry about it being bad or funky, and it has a longer shelf life for us,” says Montgomery. Loudoun Hunger Relief receives produce from JK Community Farm and Roundabout Meadows. “It’s locally grown, which is such a huge and healthy, wonderful gift.”
Today JK Community Farm operates on 150 acres, not only growing and donating organic produce, but also protein including beef and pork. The farm ended 2020 with 147,000 pounds donated, which went directly to Loudoun Hunger Relief, Food for Others Fairfax, and Arlington Food Assistance Center. JK Community Farm has acted as a model for other organizations, such as the Piedmont Environmental Council and its community farm at Roundabout Meadows.
When asked if every community should have a farm like JK Community Farm, Kuhn responded with a passionate, “Yes! We would absolutely love to see that, that’s the dream.”
She added that the ultimate goal is that “everybody has access to healthy food and that it shouldn't be a monetary restriction to determine how healthy you are or how healthy your kids can be.”
Many Americans lack knowledge about where their food comes from. In fact, an article published in The Washington Post in 2017 reported that 7% of American adults believe chocolate milk comes from brown cows.
Agriculture is not a part of many school curriculums today and has been increasingly not taught in schools over the last century. A study of widely used science textbooks and curriculum programs in United States elementary schools found that concepts relating to agricultural literacy were lacking. Agricultural literacy refers to knowledge about farming, food systems, the environment, and nutrition.
One of the goals of nonprofit farms is to bridge this gap by teaching people about where their food comes from and how to farm themselves or start their own backyard gardens.
“No matter what your diet is, no matter who you are, you rely on agriculture,” says Dana Melby of Roundabout Meadows. “I don’t think any of us are photosynthesizing independently yet, we’re not quite there,” she jokes.
With the goal of education in mind, in 2010 the Fauquier Education Farm was established in collaboration with the Virginia Cooperative Extension, an educational outreach program of Virginia’s land grant universities that is part of the USDA. They transformed 11 acres of county-owned property in Warrenton, Virginia, into a nonprofit education farm. The farm hosts a beginning farmer and rancher program and offers workshops throughout the year.
In addition to providing educational opportunities, everything grown on the farm is donated to food banks in northern Virginia. This past year, the Fauquier Education Farm began working with the Mid-Atlantic Food Resilience and Access Coalition to distribute its produce even farther.
“What we really want to do is educate the community on how to grow food for themselves and how to become sustainable farmers,” says Jim Hankins, executive director of the Fauquier Education Farm. “We’re doing a lot more than just being a food bank farm.”
During the pandemic, nonprofit farms have seen a significant increase in volunteer interest. The combination of online schooling and remote work meant that many families had extra time on their hands. Spending a morning or afternoon harvesting vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower, and kale is a perfect solution for restless kids and anyone looking to get out of the house and spend time outdoors in a COVID-safe way, supporters say.
But volunteering on a nonprofit farm doesn’t only provide a change of scenery. It’s a chance to support your community while learning about agriculture. There’s something to be gained for community members of all ages who get their hands dirty and help harvest—whether that’s deciding to buy products from farmers markets instead of the grocery store, planting a backyard garden, or simply learning that a potato grows underground.
“People want to volunteer. It is absolutely common for us to get volunteers who have driven more than an hour or two hours or two and a half hours,” says Hankins. “I’ve had volunteers from all across the state.”
Fauquier Education Farm had a 42% increase in production, thanks to dedicated community volunteers, finishing out 2020 with 71,428 pounds donated to the food banks it partners with. Volunteers at Roundabout Meadows and JK Community Farm also stepped up in a big way, and the farms have set goals to grow and donate even more produce in 2021.
“I believe the fact that this is being done primarily with volunteer labor is just one of our biggest success stories,” says Hankins.