Key Findings from California FreshWorks’ First Program Evaluation

California FreshWorks is comprised of a statewide network of CDFI lenders that provide financing to food enterprises that invest in an equitable food system and increase access to affordable, healthy, culturally-appropriate food in underserved communities. We approach food access not only as a health issue, but also a community development and equity issue. Therefore, along with increasing access to healthy foods FreshWorks works to cultivate economic power and leadership; and focuses on racial and social equity, environmental stewardship, and local sourcing.

To develop FreshWorks’ current strategies we performed an extensive literature review that focused on inequities in the food system and listening sessions within key communities. We learned that the people most impacted by issues of food insecurity, obesity, and lack of access to nutritious food are people of color, women, children, low-income individuals, and food system workers.

Ownership across the food system has seen decades of corporate consolidation, resulting in negative social and economic impacts on food, trade, land use, labor, and other sectors. Consequently, from seeds to land ownership to retail distribution, profit, not nourishing communities, is the key driver of our conventional food system.

The U.S. food system provides one out of five private-sector jobs, and is the number one private sector employer in California. The majority of small businesses in the state are founded and run by people of color; however, each year more than 50% of entrepreneurs of color are denied access to capital.

Unsurprisingly, the ownership of land and capital in the food system is primarily white and male. In part, the practices of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) bolsters inequities among farmers. These practices have historically discriminated against agricultural workers, ranchers of color, and women, through the denial of land ownership, loans, and adequate support services.

In light of these findings, we determined that FreshWorks must also cultivate economic power and leadership alongside increasing access to healthy food. In order to truly address the structural failures that perpetuate and exacerbate lack of access to healthy, culturally relevant, environmentally sustainable, and affordable food, we redesigned our program prioritizing the following goals:

    Increase access to healthy food for residents of low-income, low-access communities.
    Spur job creation and inclusive economic development.
    Ensure equitable access to food, ownership, and jobs.
    Encourage sustainable environmental practices.
    Build a sustainable California food system that increases availability of locally grown or produced foods.

California has a range of businesses in the food and farming sectors, and these goals inform how we operate and what businesses we work with. It was also important to us that we look to geographic regions that have historically received less emphasis and resources, local sourcing, and environmental stewardship. Additionally, we developed two new financial products, Technical Assistance grants and Credit Enhancements, directly confronting and removing barriers for small businesses to access capital.

Disparities in access to fresh food are influenced by geographic, economic, and social factors within the policies and practices of a community’s food system. Therefore, the solutions we invest in must take a systemic approach and focus on building structural equity.

FreshWorks’ First Program Evaluation

To assess the effectiveness of FreshWorks, we partnered with Pacific Community Ventures (PCV) to evaluate the social and economic impacts of the program’s offerings.

In total, the evaluation assessed 16 grants, 4 credit enhancements, and 7 loans provided between May 2018 to July 2019 to twenty businesses located in the San Joaquin and Sacramento Central Valleys, Los Angeles region, and the Bay Area.

A notable finding was that the businesses supported by FreshWorks tend to hire directly from the community they are based in, where employees are recruited via personal relationships of owners and other employees. These hiring practices underscore the potential for catalytic impact of supporting businesses located in financially oppressed communities that are owned and operated by people who are often mistakenly labeled as “high-risk.”

As part of our theory of change, which is rooted in economic equity, we focus on five main program goals across the food system – from farming to distribution to institutional purchasing – all which have significant impacts on low-income communities. Key findings from FreshWorks’ first evaluation show that the program’s goals, financial products, and lending strategies are effective in building local community power.

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