Growing a food hub from a sprout

Connecting local farmers with people who want to buy the vegetables and animals they raise is what a food hub does. Jeremy Andrews is one of those creating such connections in the Battle Creek area. Zinta Aistars has the story. 
Sprout Urban Farms at 245 N. Kendall in Battle Creek is always sprouting new growth. It’s what happens on a farm. The nonprofit food sovereignty organization has roots that reach back to 2009, improving food accessibility throughout greater Battle Creek with a 2-acre urban farm, a network of 35 community gardens, and a mobile market that travels to underserved neighborhoods. One of Sprout’s newest outgrowths, Grown in BC Food Hub, has just surfaced.

"I’ve heard someone say, and it’s true, once you’ve seen one food hub, you’ve seen …. one food hub," says Jeremy Andrews, CEO (Chief Excitement Officer) of Sprout. Every such hub is different, he explains, serving the unique needs of the surrounding community.

The new effort, Grown in BC Food Hub, guided by MSU Center for Regional Food Systems, will connect local farmers with buyers for their produce. Buyers include schools, hospitals, assisted living facilities, housing developments, restaurants and other food service providers.

"We started with Bright Star Farm, the 2-acre youth-run farm on Kendall," says Andrews. "That filled a need for healthy food in the neighborhood. That went along with our Community Garden Resource Center, the greenhouse at 103 Limit Street. But along the way, we befriended a lot of local farmers around Battle Creek. There was a disconnect between local farmers and local food service providers. The food service providers are buying food that travels long distance, sometimes thousands of miles, instead the food grown right here. So we wanted to start not another farm, but a way to support the farms already here. We need to keep that dollar here."

Sprout works mostly with small farmers that Andrews has gotten to know for their sustainable, chemical-free farming practices, and who pay a fair living wage to their farm workers.

"By small, we mean more like 10 acres than tens of thousands of acres," says Andrews. "Anything less than 100 acres for the most part. Right now, we are working with Green Gardens Community Farm in Battle Creek, EarthSmith Food & Forest Products in Dowling, Canaan Farm Orchard in Climax, Under the Stone Garden in Scotts, Long Valley Farm in Vicksburg, and others. We have 12 farms on our list now."

And the market is rich. Buyers for the local produce, Andrews says with visible excitement, include Bronson Battle Creek. The hospital buys up what doesn’t get sold in farmers markets and adds that produce to their menus.

"It’s a cool symbiosis," Andrews says. "We’re also composting their food scraps, along with what we pick up at the local food bank."

FireKeepers Casino, Malia Mediterranean Bistro, Arcadia Brewing Company and Hogzilla BBQ are also on the fast-growing buyer list.

Andrews is strolling down Michigan Avenue, downtown Battle Creek, as he talks about the new food hub, and he points out one restaurant, and another pub, and a third tavern where he delivers produce or is working on meeting a new food need. As he walks, he is interrupted by friendly greetings every few steps. He’s a known presence in Battle Creek.

"We’re not just building a business," he acknowledges. "We’re building relationships, friendships. We’re connecting to people on a real level."

Andrews sketches out a quick diagram on a piece of paper. With the food hub at the center, other circles spiral out of that center. Larger wholesale efforts include the food providers. Mobile markets provide access for those who might otherwise go without, the underserved, the low income, the elderly.

Another circle includes small restaurants. Another encircles the Community Garden Resource Center that now also includes a seed bank, educational workshops, and a tool library. Yet another is a growing farm-to-school program.

"More and more schools are asking us about starting community gardens for their students," he says. "That’s our end goal, to get good food into schools, into kids. We’re working with every school in Battle Creek right now at some level, whether it’s a garden, or composting, or support. We want to be the change that needs to happen."

Andrews admits, not hiding the grin beneath his signature mustache, that he enjoys debate and often is the one to start it. Being the driving force as well as the "chief excitement officer" behind so many organizations and efforts requires an ability to make waves, especially when he detects stagnant waters.

"Change means raising questions, provoking thought," he says. "That’s how you discard the lame and get things going. We’ve got debates going on in Battle Creek now about allowing food trucks downtown."

Andrews chafes at the slow moving, if moving at all, pace of local governments. He has little patience for it. He believes in more options, and encourages not only business owners but the average downtown visitor to speak up. He has some options in mind himself, such as Fresh on Wheels and a burgundy-colored vehicle called the Beet Box owned by Sprout in a mobile market partnership to deliver food to outlying areas--and why  not downtown?

While impatient with slow change, when it comes to the slow food movement, Andrews drops his speed. Andrews and Sprout’s nonprofit gardening network of Bright Star Farm; SprOutreach (volunteer projects involved in gardening and marketing food); GreenFist Project (a youth internship project); and others are all part of the slow food movement.

Slow food is juxtaposed against fast food and all that the latter represents: industrialized, processed food grown and produced in factory farms. Instead, slow food is a movement that preserves culinary traditions, the heritage and culture of food.

"Part of the slow food model," says Andrews, "is to be flexible and adaptable. The food hub means just-in-time delivery." The Grown in BC Food Hub responds to what is needed, when it is needed, as food needs arise, matched to food solutions.

"These aren’t my ideas," Andrews notes. "No one comes up with ideas alone. I’m helping to bring back some traditions that make sense today." To do so, he says, takes a lot of people working hard together--a community at the hub.
Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and editor of the literary magazine, The Smoking Poet. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.

Photos by Erik Holladay.