Growing local food businesses in the Midwest is at the heart of a new grant program

June 27, 2024, 6 a.m. ·

Heartland Regional Food Business Center’s business builder grant program is aiming to help expand access local food systems in the region. (iStock photo)

Kneeling in the loamy Nebraska soil, Maya women from the Q’anjob’al community plant rows of corn. Once it is harvested, they dry and mill the corn into a fine meal for pupusas — a Central American comfort food common in El Salvador and Guatemala. Once the corn griddle cakes are cooked and paired with a filling, maybe chicharrón and quesillo, the women sell the pupusas to her neighbors.

This is an example of a local food economy at its most fundamental level, a representation of marrying agriculture and entrepreneurship to ensure a community has food on the table. In anticipation of the launch of the Heartland Regional Food Business Center’s business builder grant program later this summer, organizations like Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim, based in Omaha, aim to continue growing local food enterprises.

Comunidad Maya estimates that approximately 15,000 Maya people–primarily from Guatemala– currently live in Nebraska.

Saul Lopez, interim executive director of Comunidad Maya, said many Q’anjob’al people grow and sell their own crops among each other. The women who harvest corn to make pupusas, Lopez explained, want to find ways to grow and innovate. The business builder grants are an opportunity to do just that.

Saul Lopez
Saul Lopez, Comunidad Maya interim executive director. (Photo courtesy of Saul Lopez)

“We want to make sure that [Maya people] establish this network,” Lopez said. “You really want to map out who is doing what in order to create resiliency. That is what we want for the community, to be able to thrive in case of any other circumstances.”

The Midwest Newsroom asked to interview farmers who could benefit from the business builder program, but Lopez said that Comunidad Maya continues to build trust with potential program participants, and therefore, does not feel comfortable connecting with journalists at this time.

The Business Center was designed as a cooperative of Midwestern-based food and agricultural organizations established by the United States Department of Agriculture last year.

Working across Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and northwest Arkansas, the Center’s 34 partners and collaborators will provide mentorship and technical assistance to local food producers and farmers. Food entrepreneurs can earn up to $50,000 through the grant program. The awards can cover expenses like hiring consultants, paying staff and replacing supplies or equipment.

“The mission of the business builder is to help expand access for everyone in the local food system, to get access to local food and to be able to sell more local food,” Katie Nixon, co-director of the Heartland Business Center and food systems director at New Growth, said. “When you have a strong local food economy, there's a lot of room for entrepreneurship, but it's also a way to gather as a community.”

Sowing seeds

Center’s partners began preparing potential grant recipients within their states before the first round of the grant program was announced. Christa Hartsook from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach said she has helped applicants refine their business plans and acquire the necessary documentation to be eligible for grant funding.

“We want to see as many successful applications from Iowa as we possibly can,” Hartsook said. “The more we can do now to tell them what would qualify, helping them get registered in the UEI system, those are steps we can take now so that they're that much further along.”

A UEI is a Unique Entity Identifier, a number assigned to an individual or business by the federal government, denoting grant eligibility. However, this requirement complicates the eligibility process for immigrant farmers, primarily Latino non-citizens working in agriculture who might lack a social security card, one of the documents needed to receive a UEI. Depending on their visa or residency status, immigrant farmers might be unable to apply for a social security card, let alone wait months for their application to be processed.

The Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Nebraska helps potential grant applicants navigate this complex eligibility process. Kjersten Hyberger, local foods associate at the Center for Rural Affairs, said the organization’s status as a community development financial institution (CDFI) allows the center to grant loans to immigrants with varying documentation status.

“We're really proud that we offer that to communities that might have trouble accessing financial products,” Hyberger said. “Our beef plants and [agriculture] plants are made possible by many of the refugee residents in the state. We, as Nebraska residents, owe it to them to care for them the same way we care for any of our neighbors.”

Farther south in Newton, Kansas, Tom Buller from the Kansas Rural Center is also assisting local food producers with refining their business plans and understanding the local food market.

“For an organization that's very state-based, learning from folks in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Iowa and Missouri has been really helpful,” Buller said. “It'll help us do our job better in the future.”

Beyond supporting Midwest farmers and food businesses, growing local food economies like the Mayan community in Nebraska, could help curtail the rising rates of food insecurity across the heartland.

Research consistently shows that access to local food made possible by farmers markets, food businesses and robust local food economies, can improve community-wide food security.

“It's almost a crime against humanity that we live in the bread basket of the world, and we have people going hungry next to fields of corn that are inedible for humans but fed to all of our livestock,” Nixon said. “We can pair food insecurity with small farming and really help change the market.”

Partner organizations across the Midwest share this goal.

“I am really hoping that we can see food as an overall economic driver for the state of Iowa, specifically, rural Iowa areas where we know we need to foster additional economic development,” Hartsook said, “Food can definitely do that for individuals.”

Selling individual pupusas won’t yield immediate change, and both Lopez and Nixon recognize that food economies aren’t grown overnight. The Business Center’s grant program aims to seed the earth for years to come.

Applications for the first round of the business builder grant program are estimated to open sometime in July.

Isa Luzurraga is a journalism major and honors student at Emerson College in Boston. The Omaha native joins the Midwest Newsroom in partnership with Latino News Network and the Hortencia Zavala Foundation.

This story comes from the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including IPR, KCUR 89.3, Nebraska Public Media News, St. Louis Public Radio and NPR.