Application Process and Reimbursement Requirement Create Barriers for Rural Groups Seeking Federal Grants

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Federal programs intended to help farms and other rural businesses can have intimidating application processes or payment structures that make them inaccessible to some of their intended beneficiaries. Testimony before some congressional committees raises these concerns while a series of webinars aims to help farmers and food entrepreneurs navigate the process.

During a mid-June House Agriculture Committee hearing on nutrition programs outside of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Spencer Moss, executive director of the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition, said the competitive design of federal programs benefits organizations large enough to have a designated grant writer.

“If there was additional funding or if the process wasn’t competitive, I think we could see these programs really reach more communities,” she said. An even bigger concern Moss raised about rural access to federal grants is that recipients are often asked to face the money and then ask for a refund.

“The practice of reimbursable grants disadvantages small organizations and small communities that do not have the cash to run a grant, spend the money first, [and then] wait four weeks to four months to receive reimbursement,” she said. “This can often completely prevent communities from accessing these federal funds.” She cited as an example a food bank that waited more than seven months for a refund of $600,000.

In an interview with Agri Pulse, Moss said that in West Virginia there are people and groups, including his own, who can offer assistance to small organizations that don’t have dedicated grant-writing staff or don’t have not yet have expertise in the government grant-making process. Many volunteer-run organizations, she said, have trouble getting into the government system and navigating the Grants.gov website.

Michele Pfannenstiel, CEO of Dirigo Food Safety, has seen how the complicated grant processes and reimbursement strategy discourage some growers and business owners, especially those in underserved communities who may be at the center of a particular program. . She gave as an example a Local Food Promotion Program (LFPP) grant that was awarded to a non-profit group working with historically underserved farmers. A farmer who took part in the project “waited so long to be reimbursed by the local non-profit that he had to sell land”.

This mobile farmers market is supported by the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition. (courtesy photo)

Pfannenstiel hopes a webinar series that began last month with “How to Read a Grant RFA (Request for Applications)” will help some businesses and community groups get started.

Presenter Susan Gies Conley, grant writer, explained that it can easily take two months to complete an application. She also said it’s important to find a program that fits.

“We look for a match between your goals and the funder’s goals,” she said. “Be really honest about your ability to achieve this goal and the resources you will need to apply, execute and report on it.”

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Pfannenstiel said expenses to apply could include a feasibility study to show how expanding the slaughter line at a small meat processing plant will improve its capacity and efficiency. The Meat and Poultry Inspection Readiness Program (MPIRP) aims to support this type of expansion. But a feasibility study, Pfannenstiel said, could cost thousands of dollars and there’s no guarantee a grant application will be successful. She encouraged people to consider a feasibility study and other expenses such as staff time as investments. Their benefits could be realized in a successful future grant.

The concern about small communities and federal subsidies extends beyond the USDA. During a House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee hearing last month, Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., said he saw rural features in his district that “just don’t have not the capacity” to obtain subsidies, even specifically intended for rural beneficiaries. He called it a fairness issue and asked Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg how his department was dealing with it.

Buttigieg emphasized two things: simplifying the application process and providing technical assistance “that can help guide them through the process, especially when dealing with a first-time applicant.” But he acknowledged that the demand for this aid will exceed the funds available.

Susan-Gies-Conley-optimized.jpgSusan GiesConleyIn an interview with Agri PulseConley said local small business development centers sometimes have resources to help with grant writing, and county-level industry groups might consider offering such services to members. In West Virginia, Moss said, “there are a lot of resources” if someone has the time and the desire to learn how to navigate the process.

Pfannenstiel told webinar attendees, which included a hot sauce maker, a butcher and former LFPP and MPIRP grant applicants, that they should take whatever help is available.

“Most people don’t get into food production, farming, butchering and all that kind of stuff because they’re naturally super good at paperwork,” Pfannenstiel said.

She hopes her webinar series and grant writers like Conley can provide support so that ideas that might thrive aren’t left unexplored because applying for federal grants seems too daunting.

“It’s a scary process,” Pfannenstiel said. “You’re not alone.”

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