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Local food hub location attracts suppliers

July 28th, 2017

By Doug LeDuc | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly

A delicious opportunity to experience northeast Indiana’s emerging local food culture will be showing up soon at area Kroger stores.

It is blackberry picking season, and about 50 members of the Grabill Indiana Berry Cooperative are busy harvesting the crop from special trellises set up to grow in Allen and LaGrange counties.

GIBCO is among the first suppliers operating at a Community Harvest North facility on Coliseum Boulevard North where the Northeast Indiana Local Food Network hopes to see a local food hub develop.

“Developing the Plowshares Food Hub is the first kickoff initiative,” Janet Katz, director of the network, said during a July 25 Allen County Fair Ag Day presentation on development of the northeast Indiana local food economy.

“We’re just getting started there this summer; the first product that is going to be there is blackberries. They’re local blackberries that are going through this facility and they’re going into Krogers, but that’s the beginnings of a food hub and we’re very excited about it.”

The network hired the Manheim Solutions consultancy in 2015 with a $43,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct a strategic study for the development of a regional food economy.

The network started holding monthly steering committee meetings about a year ago at offices of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership. The group is now in the process of forming a board and applying for 501 c3 nonprofit status with the IRS, Katz said.

Economic incentive

The economic development group is interested in the local food movement as a means of boosting the region’s economy and improving its quality of place.

Studies show an increasing number of consumers prefer locally-produced food because they consider it fresher, more seasonal, better tasting and more nutritious. They also like spending food dollars locally to support the local economy and to minimize the carbon footprint by reducing spending on food transportation and storage.

That presents a big opportunity for area farmers, restaurants, grocers and food service operations because, while Indiana is the 10th largest farm state, 90 percent of the food its residents consume is sourced from beyond state borders, Katz said.

Jain Young has developed a business plan for the regional food hub as project manager for the Plowshares Food Hub, a local food distribution system project of Heartland Communities, where she is the administrator.

The extra space available at the Community Harvest’s Jeanette Weinberg Produce Preservation Center “is ideal for a food hub,” she said. It has a refrigerated receiving area with a full-size loading dock. Space in its large coolers, freezers and dry storage areas rent by pallet size by the month.

The facility’s commercial kitchen is not yet fully equipped but has basic equipment and enough space for several producers to be working at the same time.

“And it’s all reasonable rates,” Young said.

Beyond the plow

In addition to storing the blackberries it packages, GIBCO plans to use the kitchen to make products such as blackberry ice cream and pies.

GIBCO is not the only local food supplier already renting space at the facility. Its other tenants include a farmer who recently began making jellies and jams there; the Young Urban Homesteaders, which makes fermented kim chi, salsa and sauerkraut; and Clint Kelly’s Urban Grow, which is doing a beta version of a food hub.

Urban Grow is aggregating local fruits and vegetables and selling them to area restaurants out of the location. It also is delivering regular sized grocery bags with enough locally grown fruits and vegetables to feed a family of four for a week for $30.

Delivery to the door makes locally grown produce more accessible in the city’s food deserts. With no money required up front and no obligation to continue the service, the quantity of fresh fruits and vegetables provided for the money “is a good deal,” Young said.

In its third week of home deliveries, Urban Grow was taking produce to 75 residential customers, she said.

“He’s figuring out what’s going to work,” Young said of Kelly. “The seasonal bag of produce is the prototype for Plowshares. It will be rolled into Plowshares and will be something similar.

“It was all theoretical before and now we’re getting some hands on experience and we’ll officially launch Plowshares probably by the end of the summer.”

The degree to which Plowshares can staff the local food hub will depend in part on the results of a grant application submission, Young said.

It also is raising funds to purchase online ordering software for selling local food, and any individuals or businesses interested in contributing to that can contact her at plowshares.localfoodhub@yahoo.com, she said.

Participating farmers will use the software to post information on the amount and price of produce and other products they will offer for sale each week. Buyers will use it to place and pay for orders electronically.

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