Douglas County officials took another step this week toward establishing a "food hub" that would make it easier for area restaurants, grocery stores and other institutions to offer locally grown fruits, vegetables and meats to their customers.
The county's Food Policy Council said it is applying for a $58,250 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study the feasibility of establishing the hub to bring local food suppliers and customers closer together and to reduce costs of locally sourced food.
"This idea of the lack of a food infrastructure has been building through several things," said Eileen Horn, sustainability coordinator for the county and the city of Lawrence.
Over the past couple of years, she said, the Food Policy Council has engaged in a number of meetings and workshops to study different ways of improving the local food system, "and the concept of a food hub always came up and was the number-one recommendation to take forward."
Most recently, she said, she and other local officials met with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development office, which encouraged them to apply for a Rural Business Enterprise Grant.
"Knowing that there was funding available to help support a feasibility study all of a sudden made it much more imminent," Horn said.
Improving access to healthy foods is one of the goals outlined in the Douglas County Community Health Plan, which the county health department unveiled earlier this week.
Horn said a food hub could help overcome one of the biggest obstacles to accessing fresh, local foods: the cost.
"Currently our local producers are trying to grow their farm business and market their product at the same time," she said. "Without a middleman to take some of those costs away, they end up selling at a retail cost, which is difficult for low-income consumers."
The $58,250 grant being sought from the USDA would be matched with $10,000 from the Kansas Health Foundation to hire a consultant who would analyze the local market and help determine what type of business model would work best in Douglas County.
Horn said the consultant would survey potential customers – restaurants, grocery stores, area schools and hospitals - to find out how much supply they would need, as well as local producers to find out how quickly, and to what extent, they could scale up their production to meet that demand.
One of the potential pitfalls for farmers and ranchers, she said, is a drop in income when they switch from retail to wholesale marketing. She said that's the why the council also is asking to study different business models.
"Should it be a non-profit, or should it be cooperatively owned by the producers so that they can control their pricing?" she said. "Or would an entrepreneur want to pick up and do it, and it would be a for-profit business?"
Horn said she expects to hear within the next several weeks whether the grant will be awarded.