‘Food hubs’ spur local produce sales

By WEI YU

Capital News Service

LANSING – Detroit schoolchildren are eating more fresh Michigan-grown vegetables and fruit.

Betti Wiggins, director of operations for food service at the Detroit Public Schools, said she started working with a local food hub about two years ago.

Now the school system serves meals to about 45,000 students a day, and they include at least half a cup of fresh fruit and half a cup of vegetables, she said.

“Because I have 130 schools, it’s about supply chain management, and that’s how I started to work with Detroit’s Eastern Market,” said Wiggins.

“Our school and the Eastern Market have developed a crop plan – planned production by local farmers. Because of this plan, I can remove broccoli and put local asparagus in my students’ menu,” she said

Wiggins said she is committed to using other fresh Michigan produce as well.

“What other foods could we do with?” Wiggins said. “We have other seasonal products such as ripe cherries, ripe peaches, ripe blueberries, red potatoes, red apples — we can imagine the impact of those crops.”

A state policy says public institutions should use local food if possible.

“Because we are customer-based, we are a public institution. Why aren’t we taking those dollars and putting them back into our economy?” Wiggins added.

Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposed 2013 budget recommends $1 million to support regional food hubs and provide increased markets for Michigan farmers and businesses.

According to the National Good Food Network, Michigan has four food hubs — Harvest Michigan in Clarkston, Eastern Market in Detroit, Sysco Corp. in Grand Rapids and Cherry Capital Foods in Traverse City.

Keith Creagh, director of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, said there is a million dollars in the budget proposed for startup grants for food hubs.

“A food hub can take small and mid-sized producers and do some product aggregation and then build their capacity to deliver products to markets, whether it is institutions or food processors or international markets,” he said.

Regional food hubs help fill a market niche not adequately addressed by the current food distribution system. They also support mid-sized farm businesses and encourage smaller farmers to scale up their operations, Creagh added.

The department said it is looking at potential sites for new food hubs. If the Legislature approves the funding, the department would seek proposals to determine which hub locations will receive assistance.

Evan Smith, operations manager of Cherry Capital Foods in Traverse City, said the key to a successful and resilient local food system is transparency and fairness.

Cherry Capital Foods has been in business for almost four years and its customers are from the full range of food service establishments.

“We are fortunate here in Northwest Lower Michigan to be in one of the ‘hot spots’ for local food,” Smith said. As a result, we have clients that were early adopters, such as restaurants and specialty markets, as well as schools, colleges and hospitals, and we are seeing growing participation from grocery and chain stores,” he said.

“We sell freshness, flavor, convenience and seasonality, not price,” Smith said.

He also said that producers that know their costs can price their products competitively. Meanwhile, customers are willing to pay a “local premium” when they know they are supporting local farm families and keeping their food dollars in the community.

However, as the market for local produce grows, demand is exceeding supply, Smith said.

“Aggregation would help mitigate this problem but the real need is to scale up production without repeating the mono-culture mistakes of the current system,” he added.

© 2012, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *