Local food system idea back on track

March 7th, 2017

By Frank Gray | The Journal Gazette

everal years ago, officials in Bluffton and Wells County proposed developing what they called a Food Innovation Center, a place where local food producers could make products.

It was intended to help establish a local food system that could help local growers, food processors, restaurants and entrepreneurs.

The concept, though, was expensive. Simply designing it would cost $30,000, and building it would be a major project.

Then the economy went south. Grants dried up. Plans fell apart.

The notion of having what is called a local food system, though, hasn’t faded, and on March 14 at IPFW, organizations and individuals will come together for a food summit and discuss developing such a network. The registration deadline is Tuesday, and a registration form can be accessed on the Extension Office website.  If you miss the deadline but are interested in attending, contact Vickie Hadley, extension educator, at 260-481-6826 or hadleyv@purdue.edu.

Meanwhile, plenty of others are still tangling with the complicated intricacies of developing a system in which locally produced foods can find their way into groceries, restaurants, schools and homes.

The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership is among those involved.

John Sampson, CEO of the partnership, said his organization’s role is to provide behind-the-scenes support.

“We’re trying not to be the center of the universe on a food network,” Sampson said. “We’re trying to get local interests involved,” to have leaders emerge and have them drive the process.

That takes collaboration, a term that Sampson said has been defined as an unnatural act performed by consenting adults.

“In collaboration, everybody has to bring everything to the table and commit,” but that gets complicated when considering all the parts that go into creating a food network that is all local or regional.

One organization assembling the parts for such a network is Community Harvest Food Bank. While it started out as a warehouse that distributes food to other food banks in the region, it has added facilities in the past few years.

A few years ago Community Harvest was given the old Azar’s commissary on Coliseum Boulevard where it has an approved commercial kitchen and the capacity to process fresh foods and freeze them.

Last year, CEO John Wolf said Community Harvest bought 28 acres of locally produced green beans and gave away 50,000 pounds of them fresh and processed and froze more than another 50,000 pounds. The agency also processed and froze 27,000 ears of corn and a truckload of carrots.

Community Harvest’s main job is to feed people in need, Wolf said, but it is also working with other farmers to get their goods into groceries and working on plans to set up a food hub.

The idea is to have farmers post online food they have, have local restaurants order it, and have the farmers bring the food to a cooler that Community Harvest has.

Meanwhile, the agency makes its kitchen available for a modest fee to people who need a commercial kitchen to process food.

“A lot of individuals have great ideas, but they need money,” Wolf said.

And it is complicated. A local system has to bring together people to fill all of the roles needed to make a network.

That’s part of the goal of the food summit next week, to bring together farmers, food producers, business owners, restaurants, entrepreneurs, distributors, wholesalers, etc.