The Bumper Crop of Funders Working for Sustainable Food


Around the time Virginia Clarke came on board at the funder affinity group Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders (SAFSF) in 2003, food safety and sustainability issues were starting to heat up in the United States, she recalls. The 2002 farm bill included some environmental wins, the first cases of mad cow disease hit the U.S. in 2003, and there was increasing talk about national obesity rates. 

“Probably by 2005, there wasn’t a day that went by that some major newspaper wasn’t having something, some article or something, to do with agriculture and/or the food system,” Clarke says. 

From 2003 until today, the number of members in SAFSF shot up from 12 to nearly 100. And that only reflects the funders it's connected with through its outreach. As much as the national network has grown, Clarke—now executive director of the group—is always learning about new players.  “There are probably hundreds that are doing this work that I don’t know about,” she says.

With the rise of the foodie movement, a growing population, and concerns about industrial agriculture and access to safe and healthy food, more foundations are giving to move us toward a more equitable, sustainable, and healthy food system. From 2011 to 2013, “sustainable agriculture and food systems” giving grew by 52 percent, according the latest EGA member survey

“The network has grown exponentially,” Clarke says. “There are now probably a dozen funder networks at a local, state or regional level.”

She describes a remarkably varied landscape of food and agriculture funders—interests are all over the place, ranging from international aid to school gardens. But they’re united by a desire to improve our relation to a fundamental resource, and they’re getting there in some surprising ways. 

A Big Spread of Problems and Solutions

One of the biggest challenges in food systems work is the complexity of the problem, and there are many points of entry for action. For some, it’s about supporting a local farmer’s market to provide kids with fresh fruits and vegetables. For others, it’s about improving conditions for farmworkers. And hanging above it all is a global food system in need of an overhaul if it’s going to keep a growing population fed and healthy, support worker livelihoods, and protect ecosystems. 

As you can imagine, that draws many different types of funders, compelled by interests like health, poverty, land and marine ecosystems, smart growth, and climate change.

You’ve got the biggest players that have been there from the beginning, like the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which currently builds its programs around helping children. Some prominent Midwestern funders involved include the Kresge and McKnight foundations. There’s a strong presence of justice and equity funders. Tons of local foundations are interested in food and agriculture, as well as rural and tribal community grantmakers. 

And a lot of food funders are family foundations—that’s about half of SAFSF’s membership—and Clarke says we may see even more of them as wealth transfers to younger family members and younger trustees take the lead. She notes that as younger families start to have kids they’re often drawn to food and health issues. Millennials have also been called the “foodie generation.” 

In terms of what issue areas are most popular, SAFSF’s latest member survey indicated the top five issues to be: local/regional food infrastructure; food access; policy at the local/state/tribal level; equity and social justice, and environmental protection. The first four of those issues were tagged by more than half of respondents. 

Mid-level interests include urban agriculture, health, organics and climate change. And in the lower range of interest were categories like GMOs, seeds and pollinators, and research.

As you can imagine, that spread of interests can make networking a challenge. Clarke recalls that in her early days, when making a hard sell to different categories of funders like health and smart growth, their issues naturally overlapped with agriculture, or they even regarded agriculture as an environmental issue. That’s changed radically since, she says, with large numbers of funders coming from such arenas. 

Of course, its scattered nature can also be a strength. When funders and NGOs working in different corners of the food system connect, powerful collaborations often emerge. 


Clarke cites the example of a newly launched USDA fund matching program called Food LINC, which aims to connect supply and demand between urban and nearby rural areas. The USDA worked with SAFSF to see if there was sufficient private interest to front the public funds. The program now has dozens of partners, ranging from international philanthropies like the Oak Foundation to small community foundations. 

“It brought a number of funders to the table who would otherwise never have partnered with USDA, wouldn’t have partnered with each other,” Clarke says.

An Emphasis on Equity and Justice

The field of foundations involved is full of such surprises. While the stereotypical image of a food activist might be your Food Network-watching, kale-loving, organic backyard farmer, SAFSF’s membership tells a deeper story. Consider that the fourth-largest issue area that members support is equity and social justice.

“I wouldn’t have guessed that 50 percent of our members would identify that they’re doing equity or social justice issues,” Clarke says. “It was awesome to see that, because that’s one of our core values and something that needs huge attention.”

Such efforts include improving access to healthy food in low-income areas, organizing for better working conditions, and community power building within the food system, from farming to the service industry.

A leading player in this area is the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, a New York-based national funder that supports grassroots social movement building in a few areas. Noyes has a unique sustainable food and agriculture program that supports work led by people of color and low-income people, building their influence in the national food movement.

“Who has skin in the game to bring about social change?” says Kolu Zigbi, program director for sustainable agriculture and food systems at Noyes. “A lot of people can sort of sign on, but the real leaders and the folks who are really committed to the long term are the people who are most directly affected.”

Many others are doing interesting work on equity and justice in food systems. The Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, for example, is an employee-governed funder that supports social movements, including for just and sustainable food systems. It’s recently backed organizing among retail and food industry employees, and the fight for higher wages for fast food workers. Medium-sized funder Surdna Foundation prioritizes efforts to restore regional and local food infrastructure, including engaging low-income communities and communities of color.

Looming Threat of Climate Change

As in virtually every corner of environmental grantmaking, climate change has been a rapidly increasing concern in food and agriculture work. Clarke notes that agriculture has only recently become a prominent part of the climate conversation, not for lack of trying on the part of funders and NGOs.

“I think that has changed, perhaps not to the extent that a number of people really want it to, but I think going forward with [UN climate] conversations, it is now firmly on the table.”

A report recently released by Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations sounded the alarm about how integral sustainable agriculture needs to be in future climate action. That’s because not only does climate change threaten food production, but agriculture is also a big driver and potential solution—agriculture, forestry, and land-use change account for a fifth of global GHG emissions, not including things like farm operations, transportation, and agricultural chemicals. 

The report calls for broad systemic shifts to sustainable and equitable agriculture practices, especially finance and support for small farmers worldwide. It also points out that agriculture features prominently in the Paris Agreement, appearing in 94 percent of all countries’ emissions reduction commitments.

About a third of SAFSF members give to climate change issues, according to their survey, and Clarke has noticed interest on the rise. The network is doing more programming on the interface between climate and agriculture, including a prominent spot in an upcoming meeting on policy.

The Packard Foundation, one of the country’s largest environmental funders, is among those supporting work on the critical nexus between agriculture and climate. One of the areas of focus within its climate subprogram is to reduce deforestation and improve agricultural practices. 

Wendy and Eric Schmidt’s 11th Hour Project has two parallel interests in climate and agriculture, including support for the California Climate & Agriculture Network, which seeks to bridge the climate and food movements. Tom Steyer’s TomKat Foundation has a similar goal with its “Good Food” program, bringing together climate, agriculture, and health issues.

From the Ground Up

That covers just a few of the topics in the mix. Clarke pointed out a lot of interesting grantmaking activity happening in Native American communities, including by the First Nations Development Institute, which gives financial and technical assistance to projects and organizations across the country, including a Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative. 

Food waste is another area that’s beginning to catch on among funders, such as the Fink Family Foundation’s recent efforts. Clarke also says program- and mission-related investments are gaining a lot of traction among food funders, as are labor issues. 


As this kind of funding builds, one challenge is how to take efforts that can often be very local, place-based, or fixed on individual projects, and turn them into the systemic change that’s needed. 

“Certainly those who are more systems oriented would like to expand the number of others who are systems oriented,” Clarke says. “Because by creating more school gardens you’re not going to fix the food system. It’s just not going to happen.”

SAFSF tries to make connections to increase impact. That could mean something as simple as pointing one funder to another to replicate a previous project’s success in other locations. Or helping to extend their awareness to national or policy issues connected to individual projects.

Any one particular grant or foundation may not be able to overhaul global agriculture, but maybe the various interested parties can link up and make progress.

“Bringing these folks together, [you recognize] that not everybody is going to be in agreement on all of the issues," Clarke says. "My personal feeling is where there is a connection on a particular issue or we can foster some movement, some forward movement, I’m going to try to make that happen.”