‘Food hub’ seen as way to promote local agriculture

Debbie Carter, who manages food service operations at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, says she likes to buy local produce for the hospital cafeteria whenever she can.

“It tastes better,” she said. “And we’re a community hospital. I’ve always believed that we’re a community, we take care of the community, and when I can help out by buying what they have extra, I think I’m helping.”

But for an institution that serves, on average, about 700 meals a day, Carter said it’s often hard to find local produce in large enough quantities on a regular basis.

“A lot of times they’ll call me and say, ‘I have extra of this,’ and that’s how we use it,” she said of produce offered by area farmers. “There really is no place that they can take it to when they have extra, which is what is needed in Lawrence.”

That’s the issue that the Douglas County Food Policy Council hopes to address in the near future.

By developing a local “food hub,” organizers hope they can provide a centralized facility that can buy and aggregate locally produced food and make it available to larger, institutional buyers in the area on a regular basis.

“A food hub is that linkage between the local farmers and the institutions, like schools, hospitals, the jail, the grocery stores and the restaurants that want to have access to local foods,” said Eileen Horn, who directs the work of the Food Policy Council. “The customers are asking for it, and there’s public interest in it, but they can’t access enough consistent supply.”

Horn and other members of the Food Policy Council told Douglas County Commissioners last week that efforts to develop a local food hub in Douglas County will be one of their top priorities in the coming year.

“What the Food Policy Council has been talking about in terms of a food hub is really what could be that central site that could aggregate, warehouse, maybe have some cold storage and some light processing for food so it would make it simpler for our community members to access that food from a single point,” Horn said in a recent interview.

The Food Policy Council was established by the County Commission in 2009.

“Basically the Food Policy Council works to identify the benefits, the challenges and the opportunities for a local food system in Douglas County,” she said. “So we’re looking at what could be the health benefits for the community; what could be the local economic development benefits for our community; and then what are some of the barriers we could look at from a policy perspective to help build a vibrant food system that would support our local farmers and our community members.”

Changing scale

Traditionally, Kansas agriculture is known for producing a limited number of commodities in vast amounts – wheat, corn and soybeans, as well as beef and pork. But Horn says smaller-scale producers in Douglas County and the surrounding area are now producing large volumes, and a surprisingly wide variety of fruits and vegetables on nearly a year-round basis.

She said much of that is the result of local growers investing in “high tunnels” — semicircular hoop structures that are relatively inexpensive and function as modified greenhouses to extend the growing season.

“That has really changed the game in terms of season extension, because now you can get greens – there are local greens available in grocery stores right now, in January, and that’s because of the season extension and high tunnels and greenhouses that people are utilizing,” she said.

Local and regional food hubs have grown in popularity in recent years, in part because of support from state and federal departments of agriculture.

Good Natured Family Farms is one that operates in the Kansas City metropolitan area, supplying local foods to area Hen House Markets and Ball’s Price Chopper Supermarkets.

In northwest Kansas and eastern Colorado, the High Plains Food Cooperative supplies local food to the Denver-area market through a network of participating farmers and ranchers.

Julie Mettenburg, executive director of the Kansas Rural Center who also serves on the Food Policy Council, says there are several advantages in promoting local agriculture through food hubs. One of those, she said, is that it encourages more diversity in farming.

“Our point of view is that it benefits the food and farming system if we have diversity in farming. So a food hub that would allow farmers to connect with local consumers allows that to become a viable economic alternative.”

Finding a model

Members of the Food Policy Council said they are now studying different models of food hubs to determine what would work best in this area. Horn said some are organized as cooperatives among farmers and producers, while others are organized by purchasers. Some are set up as community nonprofit organizations while others are for-profit enterprises, she said.

The next step, they said, will be identifying sources of financing to get the operation up and running.

Chuck Magerl, who owns and manages Free State Brewing Co., 636 Massachusetts St., said however it’s set up, he is anxious to see more locally produced food on the market.

Magerl said he has been buying local produce for the restaurant whenever he can for more than 20 years.

“The big three, in my mind, that are really the stellar aspects of local food would be tomatoes, sweet corn and peaches,” Magerl said. “Those are the three crops that we can excel at, and when they’re local and they’re fresh, the flavor just can’t be matched.”

Magerl said over the years, he has developed his own network of reliable sources for the produce he buys. But having a central hub that could serve the entire community, he said, would make buying local foods easier for everyone.

“Certainly one of the challenges is having the ability to coordinate those efforts so rather than having to deal with orders and invoicing from a dozen different sources, if it can be cut down to maybe three or four, it would streamline and make it more appealing for a lot of operations.”