County receives grants to study food hub feasibility

Douglas County will know soon whether it’s feasible to establish a “food hub” that would help gather and market local agricultural products to restaurants, schools and other large, institutional buyers.

Eileen Horn, the county’s sustainability coordinator, announced today that the county has been awarded two grants to fund the feasibility study: a $58,250 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Business Enterprise Grant program; and $10,000 from the Kansas Health Foundation.

Horn also works with the county’s Food Policy Council, an advisory group established by the Douglas County Commission to study programs and policies to promote local agriculture and local access to healthy foods.

“We’ve heard from many producers who are interested in scaling up operations, increasing the quantity of food that they produce, because they also see the opportunities,” Horn said. “Local food sales are actually on the rise, and it’s a trend that looks like it’s sticking around. Our producers are smart and they know that there’s a business opportunity there.”

Currently, locally produced foods are available to consumers through area farmers markets. It’s also available in limited supplies at some area grocery stores and restaurants.

But Horn said it remains a challenge for small and medium-size producers to break into the market of larger, institutional buyers.

“A lot of our institutional food providers where a lot of us eat every day, like schools, universities, hospitals and major business cafeterias, currently can’t purchase local foods because they need a much more consistent quantity,” Horn said. “And so they end up going with the main line distributors that currently don’t have the policies in place to work with our small local producers.”

The idea of a food hub, Horn said, is to link many small and medium-size producers into a network that would handle transportation, warehousing, marketing and distribution, thus freeing up the farmers to expand their operations and giving them access to a larger customer base.

Horn said the feasibility study will try to measure how much institutional demand there is in the area for locally grown foods, as well as the interest and capacity of local producers to take part in one.

The study will examine the market in a 16 counties in northeast Kansas: Wyandotte, Johnson, Douglas, Leavenworth, Jefferson, Atchison, Brown, Nemaha, Doniphan, Shawnee, Franklin, Osage, Miami, Jackson, Pottawatomie and Wabaunsee.

Horn said another part of the study will be to recommend what type of business model would work best for a food hub in the area. Some of the options include private, investor-owned companies, community nonprofit organizations and producer-owned co-ops.

Horn said the Food Policy Council will send out a request for proposals for research firms to conduct the study. She said the council hopes to have a final report with recommendations within 12 months.