Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sentinel Column - 7-23-09

While our farmers have been swamped with zucchini and other prolific produce, I have been up to my eyebrows in farmers market grant applications. I’m writing to you from Washington DC where 60 of us from across the country are reviewing more than 500 proposals for funding from the US Department of Agriculture. My team is reviewing the proposals to install EBT capability, sometimes in a single market sometimes regionally or statewide.

EBT, formerly known as food stamps, became inaccessible to most farmers market when it went digital. Having food stamps convert to an account which could be drawn down by swiping a card in a credit card machine made a lot of sense, but meant that the vendor or his market had to have access to such a machine and all the services it required, like a communication system and service provider and, for that matter, a bank account. You would be surprised how many farmers markets do not have a bank account.

The development of a wireless credit card machine solved the communication problem. Most markets, of course, do not have a land line. But those machines are expensive – over $1,000 when we bought ours. Then there are the monthly service fees and the transaction fees and the need to have someone available to operate the machine.
All of this can be a very expensive process, especially for markets operating on a shoestring budget.

The only reason our market was able to install EBT three years ago was by winning a grant from Project for Public Spaces that paid for all of the costs and by having a terrific volunteer base to operate the machine. We in turn served as a model for other markets in the state. Missouri now has about 15 markets accepting EBT. Only 140 to go, which demonstrates how serious the barriers to installation and operation of EBT are.

At Webb City we have the best of all worlds. We can accept EBT, making fresh fruits and vegetables available to our low-income customers and we can also accept debit and credit cards, making the same good food available to the many folks who no longer carry much cash.

Reviewing the proposals has been a revelation, both in terms of the quality of the applications and in the style of the reviewers. And revelation was my whole purpose in offering to be a reviewer. I’ve written a lot of successful grants but have never been on the reviewing end. I wanted to learn how decisions are made in selecting winning proposals.

One clear revelation is that there is a tremendous need for grant writing education. We had many applications that appeared to have a good idea at their core, but were so poorly expressed that we had a choice of guessing in their favor or ranking them below funding. Our instructions required the latter which was a shame. Which brings up the second revelation. I knew that as a grant writer I should also take care to respond clearly to every question, but now I know that I should assume the reviewer knows NOTHING. Every piece needs complete explanation and documentation.

And finally, at least with a peer review like this one, the reviewers bring their own experience. I had opinions on what made a strong proposal. One of my colleagues had a very strong bias in favor of any proposal from minority groups or markets located in very low income areas. The third team partner focused on cost effectiveness which was appropriate since he worked for the funding agency. The beauty of the team approach was that these perspectives were moderated through discussion and by averaging our scores.

Just as I had hoped, this experience has given me insight into what makes a successful proposal. I plan to test this out by submitting a couple of proposals next week to the state. I should know by fall if this new found confidence is warranted.

But what you really want to know is what’s happening at the market? Today’s lunch is meat loaf, scalloped potatoes, green beans, cake and drink for $6. Gospel Strings performs from 11 to 1.

Tomorrow is Tomato Day at the market. Bring your entries to the tomato contest to the market between 8:30 and 9:30 tomorrow morning. To enter the quality tomato contest bring two tomatoes for each category (Best Red or Best Other Color). One tomato will be cut up for the judges to sample. The other will be put on display. To enter the fun category, bring one tomato for each category – Biggest by weight, Smallest Ripe and Weirdest. Granny Shaffer’s is providing prizes of market tokens for each category. Our esteemed tomato judges this year are Mike Wiggins with Granny Shaffer’s, Chef Scott Teal with the Holiday Inn, Vicky Fuller with the Southwest Area Career Center and Mike Pound with the Joplin Globe. Winners of the contests will be announced at 10:30 and on display until 11:30. We will have samples of tomatoes from our vendors for you to try beginning at 9:30 until we run out. The Missouri Mountain Gang plays from 9:30 to 11:30.

Tuesday’s Cooking for a Cause benefits Childrens Haven which provides a safe loving home for children whose parents cannot care for them because of a temporary family crisis such as illness. Rob Pommert performs from 11 t0 1.