Serving a Community in Need

Pei Liu receives USDA-NIFA grant to help Hmong farmers with FSMA training

The 2000 United States Census showed less than 30 Hmong residents throughout the state of Missouri. A decade later, that number was estimated to be more than 1,300 – with southwest Missouri serving as a common location for those residents.

Farming was and continues to be a popular occupation among the Hmong community in southwest Missouri, but there are challenges that come with the job.

With the help of a grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), Pei Liu, an assistant professor of hospitality management in the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR) Division of Applied Social Sciences, is looking to help Hmong farmers overcome some of those challenges.

Pei Liu
Pei Liu

The grant, worth nearly $275,000, is focused on developing and implementing supplemental Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) training materials that are customized and culturally sensitive for Hmong farmers in southwest Missouri. As part of FSMA, food safety training is required for farmers and producers who own or operate commercial farms, packing operations or food processing facilities. Those farmers and producers receive FSMA training to make sure food safety protocols are understood and followed.

“As I interviewed certified FSMA trainers and Hmong farmers to prepare for this project, both groups mentioned a handful of challenges that they face when going through the training,” Liu said. “There are language barriers and learning style differences, both of which lead to lower participation among Hmong farmers. We really want to find ways to develop supplemental materials that will allow for clearer communication overall.”

Liu has been engaged in a variety of applied research projects funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) during her time in CAFNR. Her main research focuses are on consumer behaviors in foodservice operations and food safety training in foodservice operations, as well as healthy food marketing.

Liu said her team’s primary objectives are to identify the specific food safety training and education needs and food safety challenges faced by local Hmong farmers, with particular consideration of their cultural values. They are planning to develop innovative, culturally sensitive and easy to understand supplemental food safety training materials guided by FSMA for Hmong farmers in English and Hmong based on the needs and challenges. The group isn’t modifying the existing materials – they’re just looking to add to it.

Liu also plans to evaluate the supplemental materials that they develop to assess usability and potential effectiveness in hopes that the materials can be used in other Hmong communities across the country.

“It’s incredibly important to us that we keep Hmong farmer cultural values and learning styles in mind,” Liu said. “While we may have a certain way of presenting that information, we really need to keep their needs at the forefront of the discussion.”

The first step of the project will be to interview Hmong farmers and FSMA trainers. Liu will also observe Hmong farmers in the field. Liu is hoping to begin those parts of the project next year, although that will depend on travel restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s incredibly important that we first develop relationships with the Hmong farmers,” Liu said. “It’s also important that we observe how they farm. Interviews can only tell us so much. But that’s why we want to develop relationships first. It would be too much to ask to go to their farms without getting to know them first.”

Liu’s team includes Maria Rodriguez-Alcala, county engagement specialist in community economic development with MU Extension in Jasper County; Touria Eaton, Missouri state leader for the North Central Region Center for FSMA and assistant professor of horticulture at Lincoln University; Londa Nwadike, state Extension food safety specialist at MU and Kansas State University; Patrick Byers, field specialist in horticulture with MU Extension in Webster County; Nahshon Bishop, small farm specialist with Lincoln University Cooperative Extension; and Fue Yang, ambassador to the Hmong community at Lincoln University.

Liu and Eaton actually began talking about a project of this nature a few years ago, although it was more focused on commercial restaurant settings and non-profit organizations.

“We found a common interest right away with food safety,” Liu said. “We started searching for funding opportunities around three years ago. We did submit a proposal early on and received some great feedback from the reviewers. They encouraged us to make a few changes and resubmit the proposal. We shifted our focus to farmers, with a big focus on minority farmers. It was so exciting to receive this grant.

“We have such a strong team, and I’ve enjoyed working with all of them as we prepare for this project. I’m excited to get going with the work.”