The Common Good
February 2008

Growing Power

by Ragan Sutterfield | February 2008

The Foods Resource Bank Bridges the rural-urban divide through farming and giving.

Growing a solution to hunger is what farming has always been about, but the Foods Resource Bank has taken that old tradition and connected it to addressing the world’s hunger problem in a new way. The organization partners U.S. farmers in rural churches with city churches to literally “grow” a response.

In more than 200 projects across the country, communities are raising crops and livestock to use the productive power of agriculture to raise money for the world’s poorest people. It is an entrepreneurial pursuit, not just a fundraiser. Each growing project takes land, labor, seeds, and implements and puts them to work to make the money needed to fund sustainable development in the global South.

Take as an example the Foods Resource Bank growing project in Archbold, Ohio. Cattle farmer Corwin Rufenacht saw a video at his church about Foods Resource Bank (or FRB) and thought about all of the empty barns in his community. Like much of rural America, his area has a declining numbers of farmers, a trend that has seen a more than 70 percent reduction in the number of farms since a peak of 6.8 million in 1935 (the reduction is due to reasons that include suburban sprawl and ever-more engineered production techniques that favor farm consolidation). There was land available and barns being unused. “Why don’t we do a project with beef,” Rufenacht thought.

Corwin, his brother Jim, and several other local farmers decided that they would use one of these abandoned barns to hold cattle and feed them for market. Other local farmers soon donated feed for the cattle and others volunteered to offer their hand in the care of the steers. They started with 37 Holstein steers—cheap cattle that can turn a good profit. They fed the steers over the winter until they were 600 pounds each and then sold them at auction in the spring. The money they raised went to a rural community in Kenya that built small dams to provide water for farming.

This cattle project has now been underway for several years, with more steers added each year. Com­munity churches from Catholic to Mennonite help support the project with their time and money. A Lutheran church in the community even started an annual burger festival to raise funds to contribute.

In all, the project has provided more than $70,000 for dams in Kenya. Last spring Jim Rufenacht was able to travel there to see the results, farmer to farmer. With the dams the Kenyan farmers were able to have access to water closer to their fields, which reduced the time they had to spend hauling water on foot or by bicycle. A little money from some cattle in Ohio vastly improved the lives of more than 5,000 families who could now have water for their crops past the rainy season.

The program in Archbold is typical of the projects of the Foods Resource Bank. It is an effort that bridges gaps—between city and country, between Adventists and Roman Catholics, Methodists and Mennonites—all in the name of helping farmers in developing nations grow enough food to feed their own communities.

The Foods Resource Bank grew out of a series of conversations among seven denominations in 1998. Many of the denominations had been involved in growing projects in Canada since the 1970s, projects that had culminated in the creation of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank in 1983. The Canadian Foodgrains Bank works through church partnerships to grow food for people in crisis, giving direct food aid to hungry people.

Inspired by this project the U.S.-based Foods Resource Bank was formed, but unlike its sister organization, the FRB doesn’t give direct food aid, believing instead that the best way to help hunger is to help poor communities feed themselves. This is a key aspect of their work, given that many economists and policy experts believe that direct food aid often destroys local food economies. The Foods Resource Bank aims to bolster those econo­mies, not threaten them.

In 2000 the FRB began its work with 10 growing projects. There are now more than 200 projects around the country. They are concentrated in the strong agricultural states of the Midwest, but stretch from Maryland to Oregon. FRB is open to any community willing to participate.

An urban church could begin the process or a rural church could, but in the end both have to work together. The rural churches typically concentrate on the actual growing while the urban churches support the project in a variety of ways, from having families sponsor an acre for $100 to $200 to help defray the costs not covered by farmers’ contributions to making a field sign to let others know the purpose behind the crop.

In an age in which many children think that their food comes from a grocery store, not a farm, the partnership between rural and urban churches is a rare chance for the members of those churches to cross the divide and work for a common good. After all the partners do their part to create a food project, it culminates with the old tradition of a harvest festival. All of the churches involved in the project come together to harvest the crop, where urban kids might ride in combines and rural families can share a little of their life with their urban brothers and sisters. There is typically a worship service followed by a potluck, hayrides, and a bonfire. Anyone willing to pitch in is usually welcome to these gatherings.

“It’s like the good old days with neighbors coming together to help each other,” says Arlyn Schipper, a corn farmer involved with the Conrad, Iowa growing project. “We do a lot of good overseas, but what I really see is the good it has done for our community.”

Once the harvest is over and the produce, grains, or livestock have been sold, the funds are ready to be sent to communities facing hunger. Each sustainable food program is implemented by an arm of one of the FRB’s sponsoring denominations. The growing community can choose where the funds go. Some partner over time with a single community like the farmers in Ohio did, while others simply designate their funds to go to the general program fund. Regardless of where they send it, all of the money raised in the growing project can go directly toward a sustainable food project. The overhead of Foods Resource Bank comes from its supporting denominations, grants, and private contributions.

For the past few years, the funds raised from the growing projects were matched by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). This bolstered the impact of each project significantly and worked to give people in poor nations a sense that “Americans care and want to help,” says FRB volunteer Norman Braksick. Though this match is significantly smaller than what the Canadian government provides for Canadian Foodgrains Bank projects, it helped. That’s past tense, because this year USAID stopped matching Foods Resource Bank project funds. Though this was a setback, the Foods Resource Bank will continue its work.

Several suburban Chicago churches, along with nine rural churches, are sponsoring a growing project of more than 100 acres of corn and soybeans that will fund development in Malawi. Churches in Oxford and Lafayette, Indiana, are raising corn to fund a cattle program in Mozambique. And Presbyterians, Catholics, Lutherans, and United Church of Christ members are growing corn in Waukon, Iowa, to support the general programs of the Foods Resource Bank. These projects present a picture of the kingdom of God in its ecumenical beauty.

The Foods Resource Bank exercises that old mantra “Think Globally, Act Locally,” enabling communities in very particular places to work together to help others in their very particular places. In a world where the poor are often anonymous people who we help with our anonymous money, the Foods Resource Bank offers a more concrete response to global hunger. With the very tangible act of working the earth, feeding cattle, harvesting crops, and coming together in community, participants offer more than just a way to fund anti-hunger projects. They offer a vision for how to better be the church—here, now, working for the good of all.

Ragan Sutterfield is a writer and farmer in the mountains of central Arkansas. For more about Foods Resource Bank, visit www.foodsresourcebank.org.

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