Community Hub works for healthier communities

From apples and pickling cucumbers to milk and sugar beets, agricultural production is a $70 billion industry in Michigan, the second most agriculturally diverse state in the country, with more than 200 agricultural products.

But getting a diversity of foods to people with special dietary demands — gluten-free, organic, or other alternative food types — can be a challenge in rural farming communities.

The Community Hub in Tawas City is rising to meet that challenge, with a new retail location expected to open this spring at 402 W. Lake St. 

The Problem: The northeastern lower peninsula is a largely rural, agricultural area, but local food products have not been readily accessible, says Laurie Hunter, founding member and executive director of the board of directors of the Community Hub. “This area of northeastern Michigan is very isolated and lacks access to healthy and organic food,” she says. “It has very little to offer people who follow alternative diets.”

Many people drive one to two hours to gain access to the food they need, Hunter says, and the rest are simply limited to the highly processed food that is more easily available. 

The challenge to farmers: As a producer herself, Hunter is familiar with the issues facing local farmers — a short growing season means seasonal vegetables might not be available until late summer. Fresh produce ripens on its own schedule and has a short shelf life. Then there must be a market for the produce. “We have a great farmers' market here,” Hunter says, “but it is open one day a week.”

At the Food Summit, farmers reported struggling to find help with labor so they could produce more food, Monte says. 

“ We see, too, that something has to be done to assist farms with the debt burden required to start a farm,” Monte says. “Farms are essential for our communities. We need to start thinking about community investment in farms, policies that support the growth of agriculture in our communities, and education to encourage more purchasing in rural communities.”

Matt Gougeon is general manager of the Marquette Food Co-op in Marquette, which 50 years ago had much the same start as The Community Hub —  formed by a handful of families back in 1971 as a buying club for whole and organic foods. Gougeon is very familiar with the challenges Hunter cites. The entire UP, like the northern Lower Peninsula, is a small market and harsh climate and distances between communities impact what types of food arrive there, Gougeon says. 
The Community Hub offers classes and workshops that promote community health and wellness,
“Even large grocery chains like WalMart and Meijer have more limited selections of products than more populous areas of our state,” he says. “There are many trucks that “deadhead” empty away from the U.P. and many distribution warehouses that simply can’t afford the trek north to serve small(er) clients as their minimum required purchases may be more than what a small independent buyer can afford.”

So even though the city of Marquette, with 21,000 people, is much larger than Tawas City, with 1,830 people, it is still faced with the problem of food diversity and accessibility.

“While agriculture is prevalent here, it is mostly commodity crops like potatoes and hay. The mineral content of U.P. soil is such that hay grown here is prized in Kentucky for the health benefits it brings to race horses,” Gougeon says. 

Food for people — not so much grown.

Seeking solutions: In Tawas City, “the more I talked to people, the more I realized that there was indeed a large population who were looking for better choices,” Hunter says.

So in December 2021, she and fellow board members Nancy Pavelek and Cynthia Payne and others started the Community Hub, with the mission of creating a more resilient and local food supply, building stronger and healthier communities and supporting and strengthening the local economy. The Hub is a non-profit 501c3 cooperative business with a northeastern Michigan service area that includes Iosco, Ogemaw, Arenac, Alcona and Oscoda counties.

“We wanted to highlight the truly local products of this area,” Hunter says, ”and support the local farmers.”

The community-owned co-op operates as a food distribution outlet, offering locally grown, affordable food options through online sales, at a winter market and soon at its new retail location. The store hopes to be open six days a week.

In addition to distributing healthy food, the Community Hub offers classes and workshops that promote community health and wellness, sponsors community meals several times a year for free or for donation, and as of last summer, provides pet food to families in need as well.

Teaching people more about how to prepare healthy choices that may be available locally is another challenge the Hub has undertaken, Hunter says.

In an area traditionally known for big agriculture and dairy farms, there are a growing number of smaller farms offering a variety of fruits and produce grown in a more sustainable way. New farm offerings include everything from no-spray to naturally grown to certified organic, Hunter says. “We want to support these efforts and make more diversified family farms more sustainable and resilient.”
The Community Hub has made food available both through online orders and with a central delivery. “We have also participated in the local farmers' market and winter market to make local and healthy bulk items available,” Hunter says. 

Obstacles: Getting the Community Hub off the ground hasn't been easy, Hunter says. “I feel like we stalled out last year and made no real new progress. We felt stuck in a rut and could not move forward. A few of our board members dropped out as we struggled to really dial in our vision for the future.”

The Hub offers cooking workshops and other education programs.She says the co-op shifted focus toward classes and workshops this winter and “got our momentum back by reconnecting with our community. Teaching people about the seasonality of foods, and the benefits of locally produced food — both to their diets and to help sustain the community —  remains an important piece, and a rewarding one.
ugh. “People don't know how to handle (some foods) or eat it or prepare it. So we have done a lot of providing recipes and new ideas.”

Looking ahead: The Community Hub opens its retail location in May, and supporters "are putting in a ton of time and effort on our new location and making local and healthy food available year-round,” Hunter says. 

“I anticipate that we will expand our shop offerings into wider Michigan-produced products, to be able to offer more diversity and provide a more interesting shopping experience,” Hunter says. “This may mean that we have to create a distribution chain to connect communities from all over the mitten.”

Other possibilities include adding home delivery to make it easier for shoppers. “Our education workshops will continue, with a wide range of classes such as gardening, nutrition and cooking … I really want this local food project to be sustainable both economically and environmentally," Hunter says.

The Hub intends to use compostable and biodegradable bags and disposables and offer a refillery where shoppers can reuse or refill their own containers with bulk products. 

“We want to show a different way of doing things in order to protect our beautiful lakes and forests around us, and to help grow a stronger and more supportive community — coming together around good food and supportive people.”

 Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years.
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