Efforts to build local food hub in Douglas County gaining traction

Lawrence and Douglas County officials are intensifying their efforts to create a unique distribution center or “food hub” here that would handle fruits, vegetables and grains grown by farmers in a 16-county region.

Three local elected officials traveled to Memphis, Tenn., last week to participate in an invitation-only workshop designed to bring together communities that have strong potential to make locally grown food a significant part of their economies.

“What I learned is that the ideas we have here are not far-out concepts,” said City Commissioner Bob Schumm. “They are taking hold elsewhere.”

Douglas County officials have received a $68,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Kansas Health Foundation to study the feasibility of the project. County Commissioners on Wednesday agreed to hire Scale Inc. to complete a study in the next several months examining the potential number of farmers, crops and consumers that a regional food hub could support.

“What we heard at this workshop is we don’t have a lot of the same barriers that a lot of these big cities have,” said Eileen Horn, the city and county’s sustainability coordinator. “A lot of these big cities are having a hard time finding land. We have a real strategic advantage in that we are very close to very talented food producers.”

Horn said the ultimate goal of a food hub is two pronged: increase the availability of local foods to everyone in the region and serve as a catalyst for the creation of new small businesses in the agricultural sector.

Exactly what a food hub would look like is uncertain. The Douglas County delegation heard about urban food hubs that include upscale kitchens, year-round farmers markets and condo developments. They also heard about more rural facilities that are connected to community farms and feature facilities to make fresh salsa or other products that can be bottled and sold locally.

The Douglas County delegation that attended the workshop, held by the Institute for Sustainable Communities, included Schumm, Horn, Mayor Mike Dever, Douglas County Commissioner Nancy Thellman, Douglas County Food Policy Council Chairman Boog Highberger and Hugh Carter, a chamber of commerce executive and a member of the food council.

City and county leaders were invited to the workshop in part because of the success of the city’s Common Ground program through which the city provides low cost leases to growers to use vacant land that the city owns. Currently, seven acres of farmland are in production. Last year, the program featured 42 growers.

“We have been getting quite a bit of national attention for the program,” Horn said.