Local food in local mouths: U.P. food hubs to be created

In the past, when U.P. farmers have tried to get their products to local restaurants, schools, hospitals or other such establishments, they sometimes have felt like they were, well, out on an island. The logistics were just too difficult to make mass transport possible to local customers.
 
The farmers lost the local business, and just as problematic, the local businesses and schools lost the ability to serve farm-fresh products to their customers and students.
 
Thanks to a 15-month, $164,000 grant from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the development of a community food system called the U.P. Food Exchange is looking to change all that. A combined on-the-ground and online effort will give the local food market a whole new look by the end of summer 2014.
 
"We're very excited about what's coming," says Michelle Walk, one of the co-leads of the project and an extension educator for the MSU Extension office in Sault Ste. Marie. "The project looks to re-establish farms locally and make them more viable. Small, midsize and even large farms are not really economic drivers locally.
 
"There's a huge demand for local food out there. It's just a matter of existing farmers becoming involved in getting their goods to local aggregation sites, and also recruiting new growers to become part of the growing process."
 
The most visible result of the U.P. Food Exchange for consumers will be the creation of three food hubs in each of the distinct regions of the U.P.--western, central, and eastern. The locations allow farmers to deliver their goods to one of three central locations, where customers like restaurants, hospitals and schools can pick it up in bulk. Local food. Local business. Local good health.
 
"The distribution has always been the biggest challenge involved," says project co-lead Natasha Lantz, who also is  the U.P. community liaison for the Marquette Food Co-op. The co-op serves as the Central U.P. Food Hub where one of the aggregation and distribution centers is located. "This addresses this challenge immediately, but there are other plans."
 
One of those main plans is to figure out a way to deliver goods straight from farms to consumers. This would create jobs, drive the economy and streamline the process. But for the time being, the three aggregation and distribution centers in the three regions of the U.P. will serve as the U.P. Food Exchange's distribution system.

Harmony Health Foods in Sault Ste. Marie serves as the Eastern Food Hub, with Walk as the point of contact there. The western aggregation and distribution center location has yet to be determined, but Ray Sharp, manager of community planning and preparedness of the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department, will be the point of contact there.
 
There are big plans for the Marquette Food Co-op, which also has served as a retail grocery store since 1971, with a portion of its products coming from local farmers.
 
"The co-op is currently housed in a 3,200-square-foot building, but by fall 2013 we will move into its new facility with triple the capacity in the old Angeli grocery store," says Kelly Cantway, Marquette Food Co-op outreach director. "We're really looking forward to being able to serve the public better with the added space."
 
The food hubs are the most tangible aspect of the U.P. Food Exchange, but there are many behind-the-scene aspects, as well. There is a food exchange website that has just gone live, a U.P. food and farm directory, west-end coordination of farmers, increased storage capacity, distribution studies, food summits, farm food safety education, farmer training, community education, an online marketplace that will soon go live, and a marketing campaign to publicize the U.P. Food Exchange.
 
Walk and Lantz credit several partners with getting the new food systems off the ground: the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, regional downtown development authorities, local units of government, planning commissions, township governments, city commissions and of course farmers, hospitals, schools and health departments.
 
"It's a well-rounded effort, and it will take some time but I'm very optimistic and enthusiastic about where we're going," says Walk. "When this is up and running, food nutrition will be better, hospital nutrition will be better, the nutrition of the general population could be better, and the farmers will benefit by selling more of their goods locally."
 
Adds Lantz: "It's a win-win situation for both farmers and consumers."
 
There are plenty of ancillary benefits to the community in general, once a community food system such as the U.P. Food Exchange gets into full swing.
 
The benefits to the community include possible jobs created by distributing, processing, producing and retailing. This reaches outward to encourage community and social vitality, environmental stewardship, small and medium-scale farm viability and farmland preservation. The benefits, when a community food system is put in place, are numerous.
 
"The U.P. has never seen anything like this," says Lantz. "It's going to take a lot of work, education, and a new way of thinking by everyone involved, but I think when they see it starting to take shape, they'll be pleased with what they see."
 
Jeff Barr is a freelance writer who has lived in Michigan for 46 years. You can reach Jeff at barrj88@aol.com.

Photos by Shawn Malone.
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