The family-friendly Spring Potluck is Friday, March 22 at 6 p.m. at the State College Borough Building, 243 South Allen St. Featured idea: Downtown Public Community Kitchens and How to Make One Happen in State College.
If anyone has a portable public address system we could borrow to make it easier for speakers to be heard, please let me know. Also RSVPs in general are helpful, just to give us a rough idea of how many people to expect.
General Organizational Overview
Outreach/Communications – Our email mailing list now has about 750 addresses, and about 30 percent of recipients open each of the twice-monthly newsletters. Average blog readership is hovering around 50-75 unique readers per day, some of whom visit multiple times.
Homesteader’s Handbook – Available for sale at Spring Creek Homesteading workshops and potlucks, and on consignment at Webster’s Bookstore Café for $15 per copy.
Tax-Exempt Status– The IRS has responded to our November 2012 application for 501(c)3 status by referring the application for further review. Currently, IRS staffers are reviewing applications filed in March 2012, so it could be many months before we hear more.
Reskilling Workshops – They seem to be going well. Enrollment for most classes is within our goal of 8-10 people per class. Beer-brewing, gardening, butchering, carpentry and food preparation classes seem to generate the most interest. I think over time, many of the workshops will evolve into small interest group clubs of people who already know how to do the skills, but get together to do it in a fun way (Cheese-Making Party!). Looking ahead, I’d like to position Spring Creek Homesteading to provide an accessible, well-equipped, welcoming, friendly space to house those classes and clubs, plus a useful communications network, to support those activities.
Grants and Loans – We gave a $600 marketing and rent-subsidy grant to the State College Winter Farmers Market in January, and in February, gave a $500 grant to Wilson’s Homegrown Farms to install three raised bed gardens at the Youth Haven shelter on Burrowes Street this spring.
WoodWorks – To help out homesteaders who want to build home-scale carpentry projects, such as bee hives, solar driers, cold frames and cheese presses, we’ve started a workshop rental program in our basement. Rental fee is $15 per hour and we plan to have people sign a standard liability waiver to use the tools, which include a table saw, mitre saw, jigsaw, router and drill press, plus a workbench and lots of hand tools and handheld power tools.
Community Kitchen Campaign – Since the Taproot Kitchen fundraising campaign started on February 6, donations have trickled in very slowly, so the feedback seems to indicate that there’s moderate public interest in having a community kitchen, but very mild interest in financially supporting one.
As a result, we’re thinking about other paths forward. One possibility is that the kitchen could be launched as a private business in the traditional small business way with start-up loans from a bank and a little bit of grant support from Spring Creek Homesteading using the donated funds.
Another possibility involves the membership-based organizational model of groups like the Elks, Odd Fellows, American Legion, Kiwanis and VFW, or tax-exempt and/or taxpayer-supported public organizations like religious congregations and schools.
Two possible scenarios – Spring Creek Homesteading could partner with a fraternal organization, religious group or school to help upgrade their facility kitchens to meet codes for production kitchens, add or upgrade a woodworking shop and then share the facilities as joint stakeholders. Or we could or start our own separate organization of mutually-supporting member homesteaders who would pay regular dues to support a new lodge- or post-type facility that, in our case, would be oriented around food, cooking, woodworking and social activities.
John Michael Greer wrote a recent essay on this theme. If you’ve got ideas to share, please come out to the March 22 Spring Potluck where we’ll be talking more about the community kitchen and how to make it happen.
My Next Big Time Investment
In the last couple of weeks, Carolyne Meehan has been organizing a grant-writing team working toward USDA Farm-to-School grants. Carolyne serves on the SCASD Parent Nutrition Council, which works with the district’s Food Service Director Megan Schaper, to support initiatives improving student nutrition.
After a few preliminary meetings and emails, it looks as though the grant-writing effort won’t be aiming for this year’s April application deadline. Instead (and Carolyne will be writing more about this soon), we’ll be doing a lot of basic research to build up knowledge and working relationships within the district to prepare an application for the 2014 grant cycle.
Having read through the grant packet, I think the USDA Farm-to-School grant program is based on the idea that there aren’t many solid working models demonstrating how local farms can feed local kids through local school lunch programs, within district food service budget constraints, while providing a decent profit margin to the local farmers.
Without those models, the USDA program encourages schools, farmers and community groups to launch more pilot programs, provided the test programs plausibly promise to produce useful information about what works and what doesn’t. One possibility is that the USDA will take a look at some of the first few years of feedback and decide to make some changes in the current maze of federal, state and local food safety regulations and in subsidy programs, to better support the small farm development that’s part of their strategic plan already. But they won’t know exactly how poorly the current system facilitates institutional local food sales until they have more data.
CSA’s have the same profitability problem as farm-to-school programs: until gas prices go up above some threshold we haven’t hit yet, trucked food from large and chemical-dependent farms is cheaper to produce and deliver than local food produced on small, organic or low-chemical farms. But once that threshold is breached, local food will be a bargain in comparison, especially if local producers are either up to capacity or able to quickly get up to capacity.
So a big chunk of my time over the next year – within this basic research effort – will be gathering a very clear picture of the current status of food safety laws, regulations and codes, other school district models and their pros and cons, current farmer interest in growing the crops that the district’s kids eat, current price points the farmers need to add capacity in those crops, purchasing policies at SCASD & PSU, case studies from farmers and buyers who have tried to “buy local,” what’s worked, what hasn’t worked and why, and much more.
The specific goal will be to publish a sort-of Centre Region Producer’s & Buyer’s Handbook laying out the opportunities and obstacles within the current framework in clear (non-legal) language, as a prelude to generating more specific conversations about what farmers and buyers are willing to try, within those constraints, and what they’d like to see changed to give them more freedom of movement.
As a side issue, I think part of the price point solution for the local farmers will be setting up a cooperative to improve their purchasing power and access to trained labor. One of the reasons they can’t compete with the big guys is because they get no bulk purchasing discounts for their farming supplies and they can’t find reliable farmhands at a manageable cost. How many people working how many hours at which times of year for what rate of pay would make their farming lives work better but still provide a decent profit margin? What kind of training do the laborers need? I don’t know, but addressing those two issues – bulk buying and a trained, reliable labor pool – will probably mean getting farmers together in more settings to work toward not only a marketing and sales association to streamline the distribution side, but also a purchasing association to save the member farmers money on the input side.