CEDAM Blog

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FREE Quality Income Tax Returns

Written by Ross Yednock, Program Director of the Michigan Economic Impact Coalition

taxes-646511_640We are smack dab in the middle of the 2016 tax filing season. Whether or not you will receive a refund, you could end up losing some of your hard-earned money by paying an unqualified and unregulated person to file your tax return.

Unfortunately, in the multi-billion dollar tax preparation industry, all things are not equal.

While some tax professionals register with IRS and are credentialed – enrolled agents, certified public accountants and attorneys are required to meet professional standards – sixty percent of paid tax preparers are unregulated and have no training or educational requirements.

This lack of regulation combined with the tax forms’ intimidation factor means hard-working Michigan taxpayers are spending hundreds of dollars to have simple tax returns prepared.

stamp-143799_640According to the National Society of Accountants, the average American family pays anywhere from $159 – $447 on tax preparation. Many pay far more as I have learned in my annual MEIC Client interviewsThe reality is that there is also no price disclosure requirement like you have when you get a loan or have your car served, leaving many taxpayers with sticker shock after the preparer has finished their return.

Most big-box companies charge by the form and tack on additional fees or hard-sell services such as offering same day “refunds” or issuing the refund on a debit card. The same day refunds are particular troublesome, as they actually refund anticipation loans (RAL) which are predatory loans using the projected refund as collateral. RALs often cost more than 200% interest rate just for the chance to receive money a few days sooner than the week or so it typically takes the IRS to issue a refund (nine out of ten refunds are issued by the IRS within 21 days with many coming in just a few days). And, if the refund doesn’t cover the loan (again, it’s a loan, not the actual refund), you must come up with the difference or risk even more fees from the preparer.

There is good news, though. Most people can keep more of their hard-earned money and file for their taxes for free!

MichFreeTaxSiteIf your household brings in under $62,000 you can file your federal taxes online for free. Those earning less than $54,000 and you can get in-person help through a voluntary income tax assistance (VITA) or a tax counseling for the elderly (TCE) preparer.

TaxTime1Even better than having your taxes done for free, every tax preparer at a VITA or TCE site is certified by the IRS and trained to do federal, state and local taxes. This keeps file return rejection rejection rates as low as 2-10 percent, which is much lower than those from paid bigger box companies (the U.S. Government Accountability Office found were riddled with errors in a 2014 report on its undercover investigation) and doesn’t cost you hundreds of dollars, either.

Last year 105,000 Michigan residents utilized these free tax services. If you’re among the 70 percent of Americans who will receive a refund this year, consider giving a free tax preparer a try. It won’t cost you anything and, chances are, it’ll be as good (if not better) than the paid service and will enable you to keep your money where it belongs – in your pocket.

For more information, go to Michiganfreetaxhelp.org or dial 211.

Voices of AmeriCorps: Mandy Barlow

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Mandy Barlow serves in the City of Grand Haven

Since I began my AmeriCorps term in October of 2015, I have come to learn a lot about the community in which I reside, volunteer, raise my family and plan on growing old. Being the mother of two teenage sons, I am incredibly aware of the need for financial literacy of our youth. However, it was not until my first meeting with a group of young ladies within the juvenile detention center that I came to realize that basic money management skills were not taught in every home.

During our first session of the Money Smart curriculum we began with basic personal finance. Speaking one-on-one with these young ladies made me realize that they had no idea how much they had to make to live the lifestyle they dreamt of, how to open and run a bank account or even how to cash a payroll check. These young ladies are within 2 years of legally becoming adults, so this was incredibly eye opening for me. Throughout the 8 week course, I was able to see major changes in the way these girls looked at their future employment opportunities, money management skills and overall comfortability with finances. They were all released from confinement with a better understanding of what they future paths may be and how to gain the things in life in which they dream of.

Although I have only been an AmeriCorps member for a few months, this short period of time has truly opened my eyes to what an impact a single person can have on their community. While I am already attending college, I have researched and decided to continue my education, further so, in an effort to gather the means to assist more of our youth in growing up to be successful members of our community. I feel that these life changes that I am making would not be possible without AmeriCorps offering me this incredible opportunity.

Mandy Barlow is an AmeriCorps member at City of Grand Haven Housing Neighborhood Services in Grand Haven.

This post is part of a blog series highlighting the viewpoints of Michigan AmeriCorps Foreclosure Prevention Corps members serving at different foreclosure host sites around Michigan. View information about the program or see more stories in this series.

Food Forward MI: Food Safety

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Have you ever watched the news and heard of a spinach recall or wondered how a melon could hurt you?

This past weekend my family and I went out to a restaurant and after staring at raw meat on the main floor through most of our meal, I finally had to ask for a server to clear it before we reached the dessert course. So what are food safety precautions and is hand washing and sanitary food preparation technique enough? How much trust can Michiganders place in those who grow or raise our food (let alone prepare it) and what does this have to do with community development?

Food safety is an important piece of local food system development with not only health implications, but also economic consequences.

Making a purchase at a local farmers market is good for the vendor and typically good for the consumer. There is an implied trust and intangibles are exchanged such as sense of community and goodwill. However, there are not many food safety standards present other than Cottage Food laws. According to Cottage Food law, as long as food items are “low risk” – for example unprocessed fruits and vegetables, farmers may sell to whomever they wish, whether at market, farm stand or other. However, should a small producer want to go full-time and scale up, precautions and tracking procedures become significant and can actually inhibit business growth. Today, there are at least 339 farmers markets of all varieties in Michigan – imagine if one half of those vendors wanted to enter retail markets. While USDA has found that 5.4 jobs are created per farmers market, this is typically not enough to pay for additional farm management, safety plan implementation and record keeping.

Ultimately, food safety standards will continue to tighten in coming years. This can create a bottle neck for those wishing to access local, healthy foods at large volume. However, Michigan has made significant headway over the last several years to help farmers share risk and cost (positively affecting our health and our wallet) as one of six pilots across the country implementing GroupGAP (Good Agricultural Practices). Through the pilot findings of the MI GroupGAP study, researchers noted that on-farm and quality management system audit expenses can be shared amongst group participants, thereby reducing barriers to wholesale market entry for small farmers. As of the end of 2015, the USDA is currently working to unveil GroupGAP nationally in 2016, which will allow for more small farmers to scale up their sales.

How does increased food safety improve community well-being?

As customers have less time to seek out groceries, local food aggregation and distribution will become more important. Trust bonds will be replaced with food safety certification so that foods may be traced down to the date and row of harvest. Ultimately, this will help reduce the bottle neck for local food procurement and allow more farmers to enter the market, additionally improving local access for institutional sourcing. This supply chain development is the necessary foundation from which to get a locally grown apple to a child’s plate within the K-12 system or in a senior center’s cafeteria. However, it is not possible without supporting policy and decision making at the governmental level. Check back next month for federal and state actions adopted to help build local food infrastructure and access.

For more information on the impacts of food safety on local purchasing, please contact Farm to Institution specialist, Colleen Matts at matts@msu.edu. If you’re a farmer interested in becoming GroupGAP certified or an organization looking to buy MI GroupGAP certified products, please contact Cherry Capital GroupGAP coordinator, Phil Britton, at phil.britton@cherrycapitalfoods.com. For more information and to read the complete Food Forward MI blog see: http://cedam.info/policy/food/

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mary-zumbrunnenAbout the author: Mary ZumBrunnen is the Director of Talent & New Market Initiatives at Prima Civitas, a statewide economic development non-profit catalyzing Michigan. She holds a BS in agriculture and natural resource communications from Michigan State University (MSU) and an MS in community, agriculture, recreation and resource studies, also from MSU. Currently she is pursuing a master of business administration. A small business owner and backyard farmer, Mary energetically works to facilitate sustainable development through citizen engagement. Connect with Mary on Twitter @Mary_ZumBrunnen and learn about other development projects onwww.primacivitas.org today.

Historic Resources in Michigan Jeopardized by Bill to Amend 1970 PA 169

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On January 26, Rep Chris Afendoulis, R-Grand Rapids, and Sen. Peter MacGregor, R-Rockford introduced identical bills which were referred to the Local Government Committees of the House and Senate. HB 5232 and SB 720 will have a detrimental impact on historic resources and local historic districts through proposed amendments to Michigan Local Historic District Act, PA 169 of 1970. The bills jeopardize protection for Michigan Historic resources.

This legislation would have a huge impact on Michigan Communities. Local Historic Districts are the ONLY way for a community to protect areas of historic significance from insensitive development, inappropriate alterations, and demolition.

Redevelopment should be done in honest and fair terms while weighing the impact that it can have on our Historic Districts. The bills not only aim to eliminate Michigan Historic districts over time, but would require that local legislative bodies vote to reinstate each district, even those long-standing, every 10 years.

One of the problems with this legislation is that community landmarks would be made vulnerable when there is a sudden need for development or demolition. The legislation requires a 2/3 majority support of petition from property owners before the local historic district would even be placed under a study committee for review. Once this occurs it would eliminate grant funds that are available for preservation. This would create a tremendous burden on communities that are trying to establish local districts.

Another area of concern is that the appeal process would only be heard through local level where political and development pressures could affect the outcome rather than at a neutral, state board of appeals.

The whole process would be a dismissal of nationwide standards and guidelines that historic commissioners utilize to base their review upon and it would deliberately leave the current process open interpretation. You can find out more information about the bills here.

Take Action: Voice opposition to HB 5232 and SB 720 by contacting  your local representatives and senators.

4 Opportunities to Increase Economic Stability

Written by Lisa Assenmacher, Communication and Training Specialist

Financial instability is the root of many of the challenges that community economic development organizations work with on a daily basis when serving clients. You can help your community address economic instability in four ways.

1. Call attention to economic disparity in your community by showcasing data from the CFED scorecard

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Excerpt from the CFED Scorecard. Click to view the full report.

We all understand our communities and their unique dynamics, needs and opportunities. CFED provides data that allow us to confirm what we know, highlight economic disparity and prove the need for more financial capability services. It also provides a consistent metric for comparison with other communities across the country. Data is always a useful tool to leverage additional funding or adaptations in programs, and CFED provides this scorecard and a host of other information for free.

Explore the CFED Scorecard for Michigan and the rest of the country and explore some of the other resources available to help you navigate your work. scorecard.assetsandopportunity.org/latest/state/mi

2. Bring attention to predatory lending practices and help your community understand that there are alternatives

shark-soloPredatory loans are intended by design to take advantage of vulnerable populations who feel trapped and without options. The best way you can help your clients protect themselves is to understand the situation yourself, talking to your legislators (and telling them to vote no on predatory product expansion legislation) and sharing alternative products with your clients. While predatory lenders had a prior advantage, many credit unions, organizations and others are fighting against them and offering alternatives that can actually empower people rather than harm them.

A good place to learn more about the subject and alternative products is with Predatory Lending Toolkit available for free on CEDAM’s website: cedam.info/policy/payday

3. Market and attend a Show Me the Money Day event

ShowMeTheMoney-Logo-2016Show Me the Money Day is a community resource fair filled with opportunities to help your clients access financial education and resources. Whether your organization is hosting an event this year or not, it’s a great idea for you to both market and attend the event in your community. Doing so will provide opportunities to network with peers, discover new resources and provide year-round support to your clients. If there is not an event in your community this year, consider joining forces with new potential partners and hosting an event in 2017!

Learn more at ShowMeTheMoneyDay.org

4. Market free tax preparation sites and educate taxpayers of their rights

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 2.43.15 PMWith free tax preparation sites across Michigan and free online resources, every eligible person should be able to access services that help them claim all they should when filing their taxes. However, more than simply sharing information about these sites with your clients, help them to understand their rights as taxpayers and identify practices that are predatory should they seek alternative resources. Understanding what resources are available, what fees are reasonable and when to say no will position a person to be well-informed and make good decisions.

MichiganFreeTaxHelp.org is a great place to gain more information about free tax assistance, important tax credits and free tax preparation sites. A Taxpayer Bill of Rights is also available and updated through the IRS: irs.gov/Taxpayer-Bill-of-Rights

Using these free and accessible tools is a great place to start to resolve local challenges and empower your clients. If you already have programs in place, these resources can enhance and leverage their success even further. CEDAM has a host of additional resources beyond these, which you can view at anytime at cedam.info.

Voices of AmeriCorps: Brian Rakovitis

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Brian Rakovitis is serving with the United Way of Washtenaw County

In early December I attended an after-school program at a local Elementary in Washtenaw County. Every Thursday the after school program has its club sessions, which are designed to expose youth to a wide and diverse range of topics, including music, art, dance, reading, math, languages, business and more. On this particular night I was observing the business club with the goal of understanding how financial literacy and the FDIC Money Smart program could be included in the club’s content.

I entered the elementary school through one of the side doors. Children were excitedly hurrying in and out of the school building; many were bolting for their parents cars, looking to leave the school day behind. The school was a standard, rectangular, tan brick building. Inside the hallways were narrow, and the chairs were child size. Papers, hats, coats and school supplies were strewn about and art projects dressed the walls. Uncertain as to where I needed to go, I asked the first adult I could find. Luckily, the first person I asked, Mr. A, was part of the program. Mr. A is a taller gentleman in his late twenties. He wore his hair in dreads and a Jamaican inspired green, red and black striped knitted cap. In a friendly manner, he shook my hand and told me I was in the right place when I asked where the after-school program was. We located my contact Ms. K.

Ms. K was the site coordinator and was already hard at work trying to wrangle the children who were running to and from the small classroom. Ms. K is a blonde woman in her mid-twenties. She stood barely taller than many of the children she cared for, yet you could tell she was the boss and all the children knew it. She persuaded the students to sit down at the short tables and have an after school snack. Many of the kids were less than pleased about the meal situation. They groaned at the thought of eating raw vegetables and many only ate the chips and salsa. I found out later that the salsa was sometimes replaced with pizza sauce when the school’s money was running low. I felt a slight nauseous feeling at the thought of eating chips and pizza sauce. Ms. K invited me to sit and chat with the students until they were finished with snack time and club started.

Chatting with the students was a bit awkward initially. They were noticeably cautious about interacting with a random adult. However, after a few minutes of talking and asking questions, as well as the realization that I was not going to leave, the students seemed to ease up and speak more freely with me.

I began to have a conversation with a 3rd grader name Timmy. Timmy happened to be in business club last semester and was excited for another semester of the club. He described how they created a business, made goods and sold them to other students in a market at the end of the semester in order to earn after-school bucks!

Mr. A and Ms. K called attention to the front of the room. The children were less than attentive until Mr. A. called out, “Ok everyone, if you can hear my voice raise your hand.” Very few did. He called out again, “Ok everyone, if you can hear my voice and your butts are in your seats, raise your hand.” More students took notice this time and raised their hand. Once more Mr. A called out, “Ok everyone, if you can hear my voice and your butts are in your seats, and you are quiet, raise your hand.” By then most students had heard his calls and finally settled down.

Ms. K took over calling out the club assignments, and shuttling kids to different rooms for their club activities. Business club, however, stayed in the room and Ms C. began with a get to know you exercise. Ms. C was an undergrad with the local University. She was patient and persistent as many of the children were still focusing. We said our names and some food we didn’t like to eat. Timmy stood next to me, showing me the ropes of different games and activities. Occasionally he would lose focus and act out, like some of the other kids. These moments were typically brief, but more frequent with some students.

Finally, we got to the main activity of business club; the students, alone or in pairs, were to develop a business plan. Timmy asked if I would like to be part of his business and I accepted. I also accepted two or three more offers. I think perhaps the students wanted help with understanding the instructions.

We found ourselves brainstorming company names and products we would make and sell. Timmy and I thought about what we could make in this classroom. Timmy was only interested in one thing. Ice Cream! I said, “Ok Timmy, what will be our name?” Timmy was stumped, I said Timmy, “What is a super cool name?” Timmy looked up and excitedly said “Super Cool Ice Cream Store! And we will sell strawberry flavored ice cream.” I asked Timmy if he wanted any other flavors he responded “Only strawberry, and maybe honey.”

Then I was asked by the club leader Ms. C to lecture the students on banks. I froze for a moment, I wasn’t prepared to lecture that day. I had not even given my first workshop. Sure I had made notes, but I didn’t have any of them. Ms. C thankfully threw me a lifeline, and said that I would be the bank. Each company had to ask the bank for a loan using their business plan. Bingo I thought! I would work the “bank on it.”

I sat with several students discussing what a bank does, what a loan is, and how banks can help you protect and save your money. Then it was Timmy’s turn to sell his business idea to the bank for a loan. I asked Timmy, “Do you know what a bank does?” He said, “It keeps your money safe.” I told him he was correct, but I then told him banks do other things. He asked what? I asked him if he knew how banks made money? He said he didn’t know. I told him banks give out loans and collect interest on the loans. I told him banks will pay you money in the form of interest for keeping your money in the bank and not spending it. Timmy was so surprised and excited by the thought of having his money make more money. He wanted to know more about banks and how to open bank account; he wanted to know how much money he could make from interest. However, before we could answer all these questions club time ended.

After the club session I chatted with Ms. K. We discussed how we might be able to work personal financial literacy in the business club. I turned to leave, but before I could go, Timmy came up and asked “Mr. Brian?” I said “Yes, Timmy?” Timmy asked, “Will you be here next week?” I said, “I don’t know Timmy. We have to ask Ms. K.” Ms. K said, “I don’t know Timmy, should Mr. Brian come back next week?” Timmy smiled and nodded his head yes. And I told Timmy that I would see him next week.

I of course did return next week to see Timmy and work on the Super Cool Ice Cream Store. But it was amazing to see the spark in Timmy’s eyes as he learned about something he really had not had much exposure to. Timmy was excited to get a bank account and start to save money. He wondered how he could make more money using his business model. And while the FDIC Money Smart program may not have been developed for this kind of use, its information and content may have just sparked a young boy in Ypsilanti to become an entrepreneur.

Brian Rakovitis is an AmeriCorps member at United Way of Washtenaw County in Ann Arbor.

This post is part of a blog series highlighting the viewpoints of Michigan AmeriCorps Foreclosure Prevention Corps members serving at different foreclosure host sites around Michigan. View information about the program or see more stories in this series.

FY16 Omnibus Spending Bill Released

Written by Linda Couch, Senior Vice President for Policy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition

Congressional leaders released the text of the omnibus spending bill at about 1:30 am on December 16. The omnibus bill funds all 12 appropriations bills, including the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies bill, for FY16. The text of a tax extender package was also released just after midnight.

Congress is currently operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR), which will keep the government funded until midnight December 16. Sometime on December 16 Congress will pass another CR to avoid shutdown until December 22. It is possible that both the House and Senate could take up the omnibus and be done by December 18.

The omnibus spending bill is not perfect, but we know that it could have been a lot worse if we were not successful in raising the sequester spending caps and then convincing Congress to put some of these increased resources into key programs.

Highlights of the omnibus spending bill related to homeless and housing programs:

  • National Housing Trust Fund – No NHTF funds were raided!!
  • HOME – $950M for FY16; $50M increase from FY15 level
  • Vouchers – Appears short on renewals by about $369 million; only new vouchers are VASH vouchers.
  • Homeless Assistance Grants – Increase over FY15’s $2.135B to $2.250B.
  • Project-Based Rental Assistance – Appears short on renewal funding by about $200 million.
  • Public Housing Operating and Capital Funds – Small increases for both
  • Fair housing policy riders – None!
  • Moving to Work – Reduces the Senate’s proposed expansion from 300 to 100 agencies and adds research protocols, as well as some modest reforms.

The omnibus spending bill would not raid any funds from the National Housing Trust Fund, which is set to deliver its first resources to states in 2016 for the production, preservation, and operation of predominantly affordable rental housing for extremely low income households.

The omnibus bill would provide a $50 million increase relative to FY15 for the HOME program, bringing HOME funding to $950 million, a major victory for HOME program advocates. The House bill would have cut HOME to $767 million in FY16; the Senate bill would have effectively eliminated funding for the HOME program by cutting it to $66 million in FY16.

The omnibus bill would fund the overall Housing Choice Voucher program at $19.629 billion, providing $17.681 for voucher renewals and $65 million for new vouchers (all of the new vouchers are Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers). This renewal amount is expected to be sufficient if the voucher program continues to be administered in a bare-bones way, with very little rent increases / tenant income decreases, but further analysis is necessary. Renewal numbers are very mercurial things to pin down.

The omnibus bill would fund HUD’s Homeless Assistance Grant programs at $2.25 billion. The President’s budget request would have increased funding to $2.48 billion in FY16 to support efforts to end veteran homelessness in 2015, end chronic homelessness in 2017, and end homelessness for families, youth, and children in 2020.

For the renewal of Project-Based Rental Assistance contracts, the bill would provide $10.62 billion, which appears to be about $200 million less than the latest renewal need numbers. The renewal costs for FY16 increased significantly over FY15 levels because of a shift implemented in FY15 to calendar-year funding for the contract renewals. The shift resulted in savings for FY15 but meant appropriators would need to increase funding for FY16, a big challenge in a year of constrained resources. The FY15 appropriation for PBRA renewals was $9.73 billion.

Funding for Public Housing operating and capital funds remains insufficient overall, but the omnibus did increase the two public housing funding accounts compared to FY15 levels. In FY15, the operating fund received $4.44 billion and the capital fund received $1.875 billion. For FY16, the omnibus would provide $4.5 billion for the operating fund and $1.9 billion for the capital fund.

The House version of the THUD spending bill included three dangerous anti-fair housing provisions that are not included in the omnibus spending bill. The House bill would have prohibited HUD from implementing, enforcing, or administering the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule or its related Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Assessment Tool; prohibited HUD from implementing or enforcing the disparate impact standard of the Fair Housing Act; and prohibited any Fair Housing Initiative Program (FHIP) funds be used for the Private Enforcement Initiative (PEI). PEI grants support local, private fair housing groups’ testing, complaint intake, and investigation efforts. These are agencies that are critical to enforcement of the Fair Housing Act. The provision in the original House bill did not cut total fair housing funds but transferred the FHIP funds to the public agencies that engage in fair housing activities.

The Senate Committee bill would have required the HUD Secretary to expand of the number of Public Housing Agencies (PHAs) that can participate in HUD’s Moving to Work (MTW) demonstration by 300 agencies; the omnibus authorizes 100 new MTW agencies over seven years. The omnibus includes some significant research protocols, a big improvement over the Senate Committee’s bill. But key reforms remain missing such as retaining income targeting standards and protecting voucher funds from being emptied by MTW agencies.

Within Rural Development, the omnibus would provide $1.38 billion for Section 521 Rental Assistance, a significant increase compared to FY15’s $1.167 billion, which proved significantly insufficient to meet FY15’s renewal needs. The omnibus bill would also increase funds for the rural housing voucher program. 

Other notes regarding the omnibus:

  • HOPWA is increased slightly from $330 million to $335 million.
  • HUD’s Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control is level-funded at $110 million (the House bill would have cut it to $75 million).
  • The Section 811 Housing for Persons with Disabilities program is funded at $151 million, an increase compared to FY15’s $135 million.

The tax extenders package would make the 9% minimum Low Income Housing Tax Credit floor permanent, and make it retroactive to January 1, 2015. The House is expected to consider the tax extender package separately from the omnibus. Both will be merged into one vehicle prior to subsequent Senate action.

Background and Resources:

The House passed its THUD bill on June 9 but the Senate never took up its version of the bill after the Senate Committee on Appropriations approved it on June 25 (see two NLIHC articles on the House bill, Bill Raiding NHTF Passes House, Defense Moves to Senate and House Narrowly Passes THUD Bill with Anti-Fair Housing Provisions and two articles on the Senate Committee bill, Senate Committee Passes Sequester-Constrained THUD Bill and NHTF Spared in Senate THUD Bill).

You can find an updated budget chart here.

Food Forward MI: Food Hubs Expanding Local Food Access

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Written by Mary ZumBrunnen, Director of Talent & New Market Initiatives at Prima Civitas

Typically triple bottom line businesses, food hubs are an increasingly economically viable piece of the supply chain puzzle as size-appropriate connections in local food systems.

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 3.11.39 PMCo-chair of the Michigan Food Hub Network and Senior Associate Director of the Michigan State University (MSU) Center for Regional Food Systems (CRFS), Rich Pirog can often be heard repeating, “Once you’ve seen one food hub, you’ve seen one food hub”. The topic of this month’s blog post, food hubs may take the form of a physical space, such as a warehouse or even a virtual site – no one size fits all – and act as aggregation, distribution and marketing platforms for source-identified food. Over the last ten years, these unique operating models encompassing non-profit, business, cooperative and publicly owned ventures are gaining a lot of press as integral access points for regional populations’ local food procurement. Often compared to farmers markets, hubs are unique and separate in that they offer the opportunity to aggregate local food at wholesale volumes.

While a patron may buy a specific item at a grocery store or farm market, food hubs stand out by making it efficient for institutional purchase and distributor pick-up of larger volumes of local food.

potatoes-356131_640Across the country there are about 350 food hubs with a conservative estimate of total revenues of half a billion dollars. This estimate is extrapolated from data available in the 2015 National Food Hub Survey conducted by the MSU CRFS in partnership with the Wallace Center at Winrock International. Of the hubs surveyed, 98% are expected to increase demand for local food products in the next two years. With the rise of local food sales, this consumer trend has grown from $9 billion in sales in 2013 to $12 billion in 2014 (AT Kearney). In many cases, food hubs act as the gateway that allows small and mid-sized farmers to access institutional markets and turn their side business into a full-time job. While keeping the local dollar circulating and reducing the carbon foot print of non-seasonal procurement, food hubs help connect traditional “good food” and “good business” between community and the for-profit sector.

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Allen Market Place Food Nub

Spurring food hub development across the country, the Wallace Center at Winrock International launched the National Good Food Network to help move “good food” or food that is healthy, green, fair and affordable, into larger scale markets so that more producers, local economies and local communities would benefit in late 2007. With a goal of building connection, knowledge and community, the Wallace Center also launched its “Food Hub Collaboration”, a national partnership to ensure that “good food” is accessible where community typically shops and eats. Through these partnerships resource sharing, education and communication are nurtured and, in Michigan for example, influenced development of the statewide MI Food Hub Network with leadership from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, MSU CRFS, Morse Marketing Connections, LLC and several food hubs in 2011.

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ANC Executive Director Joan Nelson, along with Governor Snyder and Lansing Mayor Bernero

Within Michigan, there are about nine food hubs in operation and several more in development and start-up phases ranging from the Upper Peninsula to Grand Rapids and Saginaw over to Ann Arbor and Detroit. Each is unique in its operating model and many are offering additional services such as incubator kitchens, cooking classes and health screenings. Some of these organizations have gone from community assets to anchors that empower community ownership, food democracy and participatory engagement while affecting economic impact. They not only facilitate local dollar circulation, but support fair wage jobs creation whether hub associated, on-farm or indirectly.

In Lansing, Michigan, Allen Market Place Manager, Rita O’Brien says, “In addition to aggregation and distribution, we offer farmers and food producers access to incubator kitchens, dry and cold storage, vending at our year-round farmers market, cross-promotional materials, farmer networking opportunities, as well as educational resources such as workshops and mentoring services to help them sell to commercial buyers.”

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 3.23.19 PMIn the upper peninsula the U.P. Food Exchange (UPFE), a nontraditional food hub collaborative effort led by the Marquette Food Co-op and MSU Extension in conjunction with the Western U.P. Health Department to support local food activities, has formed a food policy committee to encourage local food as a priority for municipal government. Neal Curran, UPFE Local Food Projects Coordinator, says:

“The Policy Committee advocates for language that is inclusive of local food systems development in local municipal ordinances and provides guidance on best practices. Members of the UP Food Exchange supported the County of Marquette’s successful application for a Strategic Growth Initiative grant through Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. The funding will be used to conduct a feasibility study for a new multi-species meat processing facility in the UP.”

While there is not yet Michigan-specific economic data, the Wallace Center and MSU CRFS have tabulated hub numbers nationally three times since 2011. The number of hubs are growing and of those survey respondents nationally, about 2,100 directly related food hub jobs are supported. Within the north central region of the U.S. (including Michigan) about 27 hubs are represented. These entities supply fresh produce, meat and poultry, value-added products, milk/dairy, grains and starches, baked goods and more. The majority are operating on foundation grants or federal, state and local government funding and working to diversify into sustainable revenue streams. While building their business components, many are also assisting producers and suppliers to develop or review food safety plans and incorporating social missions such as promoting animal welfare and improving human health. Many also prioritize non-revenue generating charitable activities such as food donations to local food pantries/banks.

“One of things we are realizing is that while each food hub might be locally unique, our real strength lies in understanding the collaborative advantage that is provided as we begin to think more regionally about our foodshed. The impact of a late frost can be mitigated when there is a connected network of hubs across a region where products and information can freely flow between like-minded neighbors.” Evan Smith, CEO, Cherry Capital

Food hubs are increasingly demonstrating viable social and economic impact with strong opportunity for growth in scalability and support of new farmers entering the market. As their track records continue to be developed, food hubs will still benefit from investment and more effective deployment of capital, but are well positioned in Michigan by regional support infrastructures. As this is further explored – in particular expansion into K-12 and college purchasing supply chains, trust and quality is of top priority. Food safety policy and procedure are front and center on many producers and consumers minds. Check back next month to learn more about how small and mid-sized farmers are accessing markets through cost saving measures and sharing risk to get food on your plate.

*For more information on Michigan food hubs please visit the Michigan Food Hub Network website at: http://foodsystems.msu.edu/activity/info/michigan_food_hub_learning_and_innovation_network.

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mary-zumbrunnenAbout the author: Mary ZumBrunnen is the Director of Talent & New Market Initiatives at Prima Civitas, a statewide economic development non-profit catalyzing Michigan. She holds a BS in agriculture and natural resource communications from Michigan State University (MSU) and an MS in community, agriculture, recreation and resource studies, also from MSU. Currently she is pursuing a master of business administration. A small business owner and backyard farmer, Mary energetically works to facilitate sustainable development through citizen engagement. Connect with Mary on Twitter @Mary_ZumBrunnen and learn about other development projects onwww.primacivitas.org today.

 

Does Training Help Retain Employees?

Written by Lisa Assenmacher, Communications & Training Specialist

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CEDAM’s Lisa Assenmacher leading a training on communication planning at Destination: Vibrant Communities in November 2015.

Training is an investment by both management and the participant. If done effectively, everybody wins, including the organization and the broader mission. The nonprofit world certainly understands that resources for programing, much less training, can be difficult to secure. Moreover, this investment quickly adds up when you add up the time and resources required to travel, along with the lost hours in the office, on top of the training fees.

Further, who is to say that the return on the investment is worth it? Was the participant fully engaged, or constantly thinking about other projects and checking email? Was the training high-quality? Was it a requirement or was there also an interest in the topic? Merely attending a training doesn’t guarantee that it will benefit the employee or the organization.

It is estimated that only about 10% of all training experiences are transferred from the training environment to the job. (Baldwin & Ford, 1988)

What Drives Training Engagement and Does it Foster Organizational Commitment?

research-390297_640Last winter, I took a Business Research Methodology class for my M.B.A. curriculum at Eastern Michigan University. With a group, we used the scientific research method to try and understand an identified organization problem and determine potential conclusions using data, thereby helping us become better decision-makers. My group wanted to understand the drivers of training engagement, and in turn, whether engagement fostered organizational citizenship behavior (or a committed employee willing to go above and beyond). We each had different professional experiences related to that question, and I wanted to understand how to best serve CEDAM’s membership and encourage participation.

Contributing Factors

We analyzed many factors that were assumed to contribute to training engagement and organizational citizenship behavior.

Research on leader-member exchange has shown that positive leader-follower work  relationships are predictive of  work-related outcomes such as job performance, satisfaction with supervisor, commitment, and turnover intentions (Gerstner and Day, 1997).

We assumed that managerial support is an important consideration, with questions related to whether or not they make offerings available along with the level of encouragement or incentives. This goes hand in hand with qualities managers seek in an employee during the hiring process, among the highest, includes commitment and dedication to their job. Beyond the obvious preferences of wanting high-quality performers, turnover is expensive and time-consuming for an organization.

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We also assumed employee perception to be an important consideration, a factor that goes beyond whether or not they find the training valuable. Primarily, while it can be a person’s nature to be driven or one who simply gets by, there are motivating factors that can influence their perception of their workplace. In part related to manager support, the mere nature of the nonprofit industry which can include high rates of burnout, lack of capacity, inadequate initial training, unavailability for increased compensation and lack of mobility can, frankly, disincentivize and discourage engagement.

Further, depending on position or funding allocation, some employees are left out or overlooked when determining who is sent to training and for what purposes. These policies or procedures may turn an employee off from feeling committed to an organization or driven to find alternative opportunities because they don’t feel invested in or valued.

It is found that education and training have a positive influence on employees’ work attitudes, which can prompt them to actively exhibit in their work what they have learned. (Liang, Kao, Tu, Chin & Chung, 2013)

We also studied the the drivers of participation and engagement, including the availability of a range of formats, self-efficacy (the feeling of confidence and ability to do their job) and the relevance of their own personal need to advance and develop their human capital.

online-trainingManagement Support + Range + Satisfaction 

We surveyed more than 100 participants from different backgrounds. Of the responses, 87% were female, with an average age of 37 and median annual income of $25,000-50,000.

Several conclusions were made with important implications. Primarily, management seeks to hire people who are confident and are motivated self-starters, however, even those who fit that description are less likely to participate in a training unless an accessible range of opportunities is made available and supported by management. With technology growing so quickly, there are exceptional platforms that have diversified accessibility, requiring less resource investment. A range provides accessibility and accommodation to different learning styles and schedules.

classroom-trainingBeyond this, satisfaction of the training experience is the key complement to that employee who, by nature, is committed and driven, irrespective of their confidence level. The investment and support of high-quality, diversified training is more likely to encourage this employee to not only stay with the organization, but truly invest and care in its success because they will feel valued and motivated to grow further.

Basically, when an employee is in a supportive environment and has several options that can be customized to fit their schedule, they are more likely to engage, find it satisfying and transfer that knowledge to their workplace.

Learning Comes in Many Forms

Education and learning can take place in a variety of formats that venture beyond the traditional classroom setting. Each has purpose and, if appropriately used, can be effective. Reading (blogs, articles and other information sources) are easy ways to learn industry trends and discover new methods and best practices. Webinars, online classes, tutorials and toolkits are on-demand ways to engage with others and learn by doing. Traditional classroom settings offer networking opportunities and is still a preferred method by many. Peer groups and other associations offer a network of people with similar workplace functions and can be a supportive environment for new ideas and growth.

Invest in Your Employees, Your Future

As organizations plan their budgets for the next year and beyond, I encourage you to find ways to invest in staff. Moreover, identify ways to articulate the potential value and share your findings.  Thoughtfully and strategically assess the organization needs with respect to resources, goals and the potential of the people doing the work, and support it by pairing different formats. Thinking creatively and articulating policies and prioritizing can remove questions of doubt faced by employees and provide a system for accountability.

These efforts will save money and resources in the long-run, but more importantly, you may find a happier workplace with a committed staff working together to effectively serve the mission of the organization.

Nonprofit work is honorable, and we should do our best to recall our personal reasons for why we are in it to begin with. We need to devise solutions for our human capital to develop and thrive. Investing in training, for all employees, is one possibility and a great start.

Opportunities Available at CEDAM

CEDAM offers a range of training opportunities, with significant discounts for members. Coming in the Fall of 2016, we will host our fourth Destination: Vibrant Communities professional development day, and Real Estate Development Boot Camp. We have a few online classes available in Real Estate Development and Organizational Development, and from there, link to our partner Occupancy Solutions, L.L.C., who provides a range of on-demand online classes. You can participate for free in Connect & Share, CEDAM’s monthly lunchtime webinar series, and access past recordings. There is a wide variety of toolkits, videos and reports available on our resource library. We also share other partner resources through social media and e-newsletters. Finally, we always want to hear from you about topics that you would find useful.

Additional Reading:

Drivers of Training Engagement and the Implications For Organizational Commitment (full paper)

Food Forward MI: Where Food Access and Community Development Merge

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A community food system isn’t just about connecting local growers to a farm market or boosting seasonal tourism.

fruit-1022519_640Everyone has a stake in community. Not only do we all eat, which affects our health and well-being, but we must purchase that food thereby contributing to our local economy. Food also transcends our culture and brings us together through social networks. Yet, in most areas there is a disconnect between farmer and consumer – a critical linkage – ultimately short changing both physical and economic health as well as missing cultural opportunity to come together. This is where food access and community development merge to ultimately inform community food systems. We can keep dollars circulating in local economies, reduce our carbon foot print and allow for more opportunity within community-level decision making.

The Triple Bottom Line: local profit staying in our local economy, overlaid with environmental integrity supporting the planet, building health and social vibrancy for all residents.

dishes-938747_640The idea of food access, where all residents are able to procure fresh, healthy and affordable food is taken for granted by many people. However, for almost 20% of Michigan residents living at or below the poverty line (U.S. Census Data), this is a challenge rather than a given. For those nearly 20%, food security – the availability and access to food – can be an episodic or recurring challenge. For those residing in more affluent areas, food sovereignty is also on the table because as basic needs are addressed, attention is tuned to determining who makes decisions about agricultural policy and how it will ultimately affect health and economy while emphasizing local control.

In particular, regions with high poverty also tend to experience higher levels of obesity due to lack of healthy food options. In 2010 across Michigan, about 66% of our population was considered overweight, and 30% obese, according to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Together, that’s 96% of our population weighing in as unhealthy. Not coincidentally, only 32% of adults in Michigan reported consuming recommended levels of fruits (two or more servings per day), and only about 24% of adults reported consuming recommended amounts of vegetables per day (or three servings). This is at least in part due to a lack of healthy food choices.

Is there opportunity for economic development utilizing our regional bounty to support health?

food-960070_640Agriculture contributes more than $101 billion to Michigan’s annual state economy and makes up about 22% of the state’s employment according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Capitalizing on our natural bounty, many regions are addressing those challenges discussed above and leveraging them as opportunity to bridge health and economic wellness. This is done by creatively harnessing momentum around not only stereotypical foodie culture and artisanal agri-tourism “experience”, but also for example, the development of food innovation districts and institutional purchasing. In a 2008 study authored by David S. Conner, PhD. et al. entitled The Food System as an Economic Driver: Strategic Applications for Michigan, the questions were asked: “How much more (fruits and vegetables) should we eat?, How much is available seasonally?, How much money would farmers make?, and How many jobs and dollars would that create?”

vegetable-777473_640The answers were surprising. Michiganders were found to require about 2.15 more servings of daily fruits and 1.79 times more servings of vegetables. If these nutritional goals were met based on current average size of fruit farms at 56 acres and vegetable farms at 44 acres, that’s another 182 fruit and 619 vegetable farms (respectively) of average size required. Meeting those USDA dietary requirements utilizing Michigan products was estimated to increase the net total of Michigan jobs by 1,780 and $211 million in net income to the state – or 529 fruit-related jobs with $42.4 million income and 1,251 vegetable-related jobs generating $169.1 million. Unfortunately, we’ll still have to buy our bananas and coffee elsewhere, but we do have the technology to extend our growing season to meet this need.

How can participatory engagement within community development help build food security (and sovereignty) while harnessing health and economic opportunity that ultimately reduces our carbon footprint?

playmobil-451203_640Some define community development as community benefit organizations, aka non-profits or individuals, building ongoing relationships for the purpose of applying and implementing collective vision for the benefit of residents. Others define community development as a planned process with the specific intention of working with stakeholder groups to address issues affecting their well-being. To take this proactive approach to regional community food systems development, people are buying local when possible (thereby reducing the amount of resources used and emissions expelled), and also have the opportunity to get involved with the way food interfaces within their community. But there’s more…

We have the capacity to meet local need. Can you help connect the dots?

This blog will take a tour of those cutting edge programs, regions, policy-making and partnerships driving the frontline of community development and local food access in Michigan. We’ll hear from stakeholders including omnivores of all ages, farmers, business owners, educators and non-profit programmers about how they’re influencing their community food systems and what it means for the health of residents and the economy. Last month we attempted to provide context and backdrop against which to offset local food system development and with this blog discussed what that means with emphasis on opportunity for impacting regional triple bottom line. Next month, we will begin to discuss participatory strategy and development necessary to do this. Starting with “food hubs” – a physical or virtual model for aggregating, distributing and marketing locally grown food – we’ll look at highlights from businesses and non-profits ranging from the Upper Peninsula and West Michigan to the Capital City and Detroit. This blog poses the questions, “What must be in place so that larger populations may purchase local food at necessary volume?” and follow-up with “How can I get involved?”

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mary-zumbrunnenAbout the author: Mary ZumBrunnen is the Director of Talent & New Market Initiatives at Prima Civitas, a statewide economic development non-profit catalyzing Michigan. She holds a BS in agriculture and natural resource communications from Michigan State University (MSU) and an MS in community, agriculture, recreation and resource studies, also from MSU. Currently she is pursuing a master of business administration. A small business owner and backyard farmer, Mary energetically works to facilitate sustainable development through citizen engagement. Connect with Mary on Twitter @Mary_ZumBrunnen and learn about other development projects onwww.primacivitas.org today.