Farm Bill Spotlight: Crossroads Community Food Network and Nancy’s Antojitos

Crossroads Community Food Network uses Farm Bill funding- including the Local Food Promotion Program, Community Food Projects, and Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives Program- to build accessible markets and serve low-income food entrepreneurs in Maryland. Christie Balch, Crossroads Community Food Network’s Executive Director, answers questions about the organization, and business owner Nancia Sical shares her experience of using the community kitchen that was made possible by these Farm Bill programs.

This is the third in a series of interviews exploring how policies in the Farm Bill influence people, programs, and food systems throughout the region.

What do you see as the central issue or issues Crossroads Community Food Network was created to address?

Crossroads was established in response to the uncomfortable reality that the wildly successful existing local farmers market served mostly the well-to-do. Founder John Hyde, who sold baked goods at the market, was troubled by the lack of racial and economic diversity among his customer base, so he set out to offer the farmers market experience to low-income residents. Through friendships with the skilled Latina bakers he employed at Takoma Kitchens and support from the local government, Hyde connected with the local immigrant community and together they launched Crossroads Farmers Market in 2007.

Crossroads Farmers Market was the first market in Maryland to accept SNAP, WIC, and other federal nutrition benefits, and the first in the country to launch a “double dollar” incentive program to match their value at the market. Eligible shoppers are able to stretch their buying power to bring home more fresh fruits and vegetables, while at the same time supporting local vendors and farmers. Over the last 11 market seasons, more than $457,000 in incentives, called Fresh Checks, have been distributed to over 15,000 residents.

In the last decade, Crossroads has grown from being a small seasonal farmers market into a year-round 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, with a full-time Executive Director, an active and engaged Board of Directors, and dedicated program and administrative staff members. Crossroads has broadened its reach in the community by now also offering healthy eating education at the market and in local schools, and mentoring low-income food business entrepreneurs who go on to sell at Crossroads Farmers Market and elsewhere through its innovative community kitchen model.

How has Crossroads interacted with Farm Bill programs and issues?

We have received grant funds through the USDA Community Food Projects Competitive Grant Program (CFP), the USDA Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Grant Program (FINI), and the USDA Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (LFPP).

What was your experience like with these programs?

Each of these grant programs have been transformative for our organization. We have felt supported by USDA staff members and have been thrilled that our participation in these programs has allowed us to develop productive relationships with other projects across the country.

The LFPP grant allowed us to launch our Microenterprise Training Program which helps food entrepreneurs create their businesses. The CFP grant is allowing us to optimize and expand our Microenterprise Training Program and assist program graduates in accessing our new licensed, shared-use kitchen so they can expand their food businesses. The FINI grant is helping to increase the number of SNAP shoppers we serve at our farmers market and the amount of SNAP dollars spent (and matched) at our farmers market. All of these grants contribute to a healthier, more inclusive local food system.

How do racial equity and/or class show up in or impact your work?

We recognize that racism is systemic and persistent, as many negative aspects of our food system disproportionately affect people of color. In general, people of color are more likely to be overweight and obese, more likely to face diet-related disease, less likely to have access to healthy food and therefore consume less of the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables, and more likely to be food insecure. These issues are interconnected and deep-rooted.

Such health disparities are often reinforced by income disparities. Although rich in culture and diversity, the Takoma/Langley Crossroads is beset with socio-economic challenges. The area’s unemployment rate is 7.6%, and 17% of families are living in poverty. These numbers, however, do not capture the full story. Maryland’s Self-Sufficiency Standard shows that “earnings well above the official federal poverty level are nevertheless far below what is needed to meet families’ basic needs.” Many of the residents we serve are underemployed or unemployed, and the availability of adequate-paying jobs is a critical issue. The majority of our program participants are low-income people of color and/or immigrants skilled in food preparation who are seeking to improve their economic status through entrepreneurship. Certainly costly licensing fees disproportionately affect low-income food entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, we have also seen firsthand how people who do not speak or read English fluently are more disadvantaged when trying to start or grow a food business here. We have heard from program participants who felt discriminated against when they went to obtain their food manager cards at the health department because of skin tone, an accent, or another factor.

At the same time, we recognize that our capabilities and assets are plentiful. Resources include knowledge of cultural traditions around food; connections with local food producers and those with expertise in local food production, procurement, and marketing; community enthusiasm for food justice work; and volunteer time. We have built strong connections with partner organizations, and we are thrilled to have an ample volunteer base within our community. We’re confident that in working toward a food system that honors the people that grow and make our food and supports farmers and food makers of color, we will achieve food sovereignty for all.

Spotlight on Nancia

Ed. Note: Nancia Sical, of Nancia’s Antojitos, is one of the entrepreneurs utilizing Crossroads’ Takoma Park Silver Spring Community Kitchen, a project supported by the USDA Community Food Project Competitive Grant Program and the USDA Local Food Promotion Program to support start-up food businesses run by low-income immigrants.

The Microenterprise Training Program offers free, bilingual business support to aspiring food entrepreneurs. The 10-part workshop series covers food safety basics, business fundamentals, and everything in between, and the new shared-use Takoma Park Silver Spring Community Kitchen provides an affordable means of production.

Tell us a little about yourself. Who are you, what do you do, and how did you end up doing it?

I am Nancia. I am a hardworking, sensitive woman, and I am very patient in everything that I do. I am the oldest of three siblings. My mother was always working and she left me in charge. That is when I learned to cook. When we were young girls, my sister and I entered a “little cravings” (antojitos) contest, in which we won first place with the dobladas de papas (potato-filled pastries). Later, I worked with homeless youth for 10 years. I loved it a lot, working with the kids, working with the families and the community. On my days off, I used to visit the kids who didn’t attend school. The relationship that existed between them and myself was incredible. When I returned home after these visits, I couldn’t even hold in my hands all that they gave me: fruits, vegetables, even chickens.

I came to the United States because of my work situation. It was not good. It was bittersweet. I didn’t see my mom for 9 years. When I applied for jobs, I didn’t know the language, I didn’t have a social security number. It was difficult.

This work is hard. What do you do to keep yourself going? How do you keep developing your skills?

The Crossroads Farmers Market and the Community Kitchen mean a lot to me. I do what I love, like cook the food of my country. But it is also a job where I earn my money. I know many people who make me feel like family, just like the community I worked with in my country.

I organize my time so that I can accomplish everything that I need to. Thanks to all of my life experiences throughout the years, I felt ready to start my business, Nancia’s Antojitos. I love this name because it brings back the memories of the doblada de papas competition.

Life is not easy. I’ve always been able to overcome; once with my baby girl, and now with my two small boys. It is important that everything that we do, we do with patience, with dedication, with compassion, that is how the things will turn out for the best.

What have been some of your greatest challenges or new learnings in starting a culinary business?

I buy most of my fruits and vegetables from the farmers at the market. These are such rich foods. The apples are bright red and very rich. The tomatoes are deep red and fresh. I’ve learned a lot about organic fruits and vegetables. In the winter, I miss the fruits and vegetables that I am unable to freeze.

I have learned a lot from Crossroads and the microenterprise food business workshops. I learned about the licenses and requirements to have a food business. Now I understand when one wedding client asked me for all the documents, like business license and insurance. Before, I couldn’t accept those jobs, but now I can confidently cater any event. When there is an opportunity to cater an event, it does not matter how small the job, I will accept it, because I know when they taste my food they will love it.

What are your goals for your business? What tools or support do you need to get there?

The opening of the community kitchen was a dream come true. We waited so long for it, and now to use the kitchen has allowed me to grow my catering business. One of my goals is to improve my marketing and promotion to increase my client base. This is something new for me. I want to have a website. However, using the computer is a big challenge for me. Even though there are a lot of people who help me, I want to learn computer skills to do my business better, and have that sense of independence.

Thank you, Nancia and Christie, for sharing your stories!

Photo credit: Molly M. Peterson, Photographer

Take Action:

The Local Food Promotion Program (LFPP) needs your help! LFPP is authorized through the Farm Bill, a multi-part piece of legislation that gets reauthorized once every four years, and is in the process of being rewritten as we speak. The House’s version of the Farm Bill cut all the funding from LFPP and other local foods programs, but the Senate bill improves these programs by combining them into the Local Agricultural Marketing Program (LAMP), a move that gives them more reliable funding into the future. Make sure LFPP and other local foods programs stay intact by supporting LAMP!

Call: Your two Senators and your Representative

Script: Hi, my name is _____ and I’m a constituent. I’m calling to express my support for local food, and to let ___ know that I support the inclusion of the Local Agricultural Marketing Program in the 2018 Farm Bill with permanent baseline funding. Will _______ legislator contact [House OR Senate] leadership and let them know he/she supports LAMP? Thank you!