Catalyst

Penn State Extension Helping Small Businesses During the Pandemic

By Joy Drohan

 

This summer, Penn State Extension Educator Jay Eury went from store to store in Adams County with a local health system’s interpreter, informing eligible small business owners about the Fresh Food Financing Initiative.

 

This grant program, funded by the federal CARES Act and administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, will stimulate investments in low- to moderate-income communities and food retail businesses owned by Black, Indigenous and People of Color. These communities have been historically disadvantaged and disproportionately affected by COVID-19. These funds begin to address this inequity and will improve health outcomes by increasing access to fresh food.

 

Eury said that none of the business owners had previously heard about the program. He described a typical applicant as the Latino owner of a small grocery store and restaurant in rural Adams County who had expanded into downtown Gettysburg shortly before the pandemic. The owners applied for funding to expand their cold storage capacity for fresh produce, meat and dairy products.

 

When Pennsylvania shut down due to COVID-19, Penn State Extension quickly mobilized to help meet the array of small business owners’ needs.

 

Penn State Extension has a team of educators who work to assist the agriculture, food system and small business entrepreneurs of Pennsylvania. The Business, Entrepreneurship, and Economic Development Team provides education and resources related to financial management, business planning, startup and enterprise development, as well as COVID-19 support, technical needs, grower and entrepreneur networking and other topics.

 

Guide to the “Retail New Normal”

 

Extension educators are providing a road map to the "retail new normal" for food and farm businesses through a webinar series of the same name. “The pandemic provided a tremendous challenge,” said Dan Brockett, a Penn State Extension educator based in Venango County. “A lot of trends that were happening — online sales, curbside pickup, social media marketing, buying local — are expected to continue. The question is how much stickiness will those trends have? Our retailers and producers had to figure out how to turn these trends into a sustainable business.”

 

Given these trends, extension educators are offering webinars to clients on timely topics, such as software skill development, packaging and food safety analysis during COVID, contactless delivery options and online sales optimization.

 

Farmers Market Forum

 

Farmers markets were deemed essential businesses during the pandemic. PDA created guidance for procedures to allow farmers markets to reopen. Extension educators created articles and webinars to share this information widely. Brian Moyer, an education program associate based in Lehigh County, hosted weekly Zoom forums for market managers to learn from each other and from experts.

 

Doylestown Farmers Market, Bucks County, was one of the first to open back up in May. Market Manager Alex Dadio said she gleaned a lot of information about necessary safety procedures from the virtual forums.

 

“It was comforting being able to connect with other humans trying to figure out the exact same things that we were during this time of upheaval,” said Dadio.

 

Moyer said reopening was challenging because “we had to design markets to be the opposite of what they are meant to be.” Typically, he noted, they are community gathering spaces, but now the focus is on making markets as safe and efficient as possible.

 

All of Penn State Extension’s COVID-19 resources can be found at https://extension.psu.edu/coronavirus.

 

Joy Drohan writes from Eco-Write, LLC.   

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