The Free Press, Mankato, MN

August 18, 2013

MVAC plans to open food hub

Organization hopes to have hub running next summer

By Amanda Dyslin adyslin@mankatofreepress.com
The Mankato Free Press

---- — MANKATO — If grants come through, Minnesota Valley Action Council will be establishing a food hub at its new facility on Victory Drive as early as next summer.

The food hub would work with numerous small farmers in southern Minnesota, purchasing their produce, eggs and meats, among other things — creating a large-scale supply of food. The hub would then sell the food to hospitals, public schools, colleges and restaurants, said Jim Gehrke, awareness coordinator.

“The food hub concept itself is something that’s growing by leaps and bounds nationally,” Gehrke said, adding that of the 200 in the U.S., only 15 have been in existence for more than 20 years and 100 have sprung up in the last five years.

The reasons are multi-faceted. For one, it makes locally grown food available to local people. Many institutions currently are spending money on food that is coming from well outside the region, Gehrke said.

“In the Midwest, when we eat a serving of vegetables, (they likely) have traveled 1,500 miles from the field to the plate,” Gehrke said. “That just doesn’t make sense in an area like south-central Minnesota.”

The hub also will eventually serve as a fundraising tool for MVAC once it’s established and will create jobs, Gehrke said.

He said locally grown food has become in demand in recent years. Farmers markets have tripled in the last decade. Schools and hospitals don’t have the resources to build a network of small farmers to produce enough food collectively to meet their demands — or to coordinate shipments and handle the bookwork — which is why food hubs act as go-betweens.

The hub would be housed at the 60,000-square-foot MVAC facility, which is equipped with loading docks for food shipments. Start-up costs would be about $280,000, which would include initial food purchases, refrigerators, a refrigerated truck, food-handling equipment, marketing costs and cash flow.

Gehrke said 89 percent of the farmers in the region who were surveyed have expressed interest in selling to the hub. There are 80 small-farm families within a 50-mile radius of Mankato producing food for local consumption, according to the Department of Agriculture.

About 50 percent of them are doing less than $25,000 in local food sales annually, Gehrke said. Another 17 percent are doing less than $50,000 in local sales.

The food hub would help to bolster those sales, and many said they would increase production to help meet the demand, he said.

“This opens up a whole new market for them,” Gehrke said.

On the other end, Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter is one institution that already has shown interest in buying the food. Steve Kjellgren, director of dining service, has been waiting 10 years for a food hub to begin in the area, having met with local farmers and artisans years ago discussing the need.

“Following those discussions, we at Gustavus made many individual contacts with local and regional famers of produce and livestock and dairy and have established direct routes from production to the plates of our students,” Kjellgren said. “Local and regional eggs and pork products and beef and dairy and vegetables have all become pride and commonplace in the Gustavus Dining Service — serving over 6,000 meals per day throughout the academic year.”

Kjellgren said the food hub will provide another important avenue for locally grown food.

“The ultimate consumer, restaurant patrons and college students will benefit by being able to know the exact place their foods have been produced, the identity of the people who had done the good work of producing for them, and also knowing that the food they are consuming has not traveled thousands of miles from field and farm to plate,” he said.

Ron Schirmers, director of food service for Mankato Area Public Schools, said the district already purchases produce from local farmers. Sometimes the food isn’t available, so with delivery, Schirmers said the food hub could be something he would be interested in learning more about.

MVAC also plans to offer Community Supported Agriculture plans for consumers. The public can buy a subscription, and during the 16- to 18-week growing season, they would receive weekly boxes of foods that are in season. (Subscriptions will be for sale as early as January 2014.)

Like food hubs, CSAs have grown in popularity. In the 1980s there were only two in the U.S. Now there are between 5,000 and 6,000, Gehrke said.

MVAC also is looking at offering value-added products, such as cereals, jellies and preserves, which many farmers already produce. And at some point down the road, they may look at setting up a retail space or commercial kitchen to make additional value-added products.

When most people think of MVAC’s mission, they think of aiding low-income families in attaining economic stability. But, in fact, the food hub fits in with the work the organization already is doing in creating jobs and developing its own social enterprises, including the thrift stores, Gehrke said.

“We’re looking to do what we can to create jobs and create pillars of support for the local community.”

Since 2000 there has been a 72 percent increase in poverty in the nine-county region. At the same time, the federal and state funding for the programs MVAC delivers has decreased 30 percent on a per-capita basis.

To help with that gap, social ventures, such as the thrift stores, have generated $4 million in revenue in the last decade, Gehrke said.

Gehrke has written about six grants and plans to write more, as 70 percent of the $280,000 funding needs to come from grants. MVAC has committed $55,000 in agency funds for the start-up.

“We’ve got supply and demand and a good business plan. The only thing we’re missing is finances,” he said.

Recently, MVAC learned that the food hub business plan was selected as a semi-finalist in the Minnesota Cup competition, the largest statewide entrepreneurial contest in the U.S. Out of about 1,100 entries, the food hub was selected as one of 57 semi-finalists.

MVAC is taking donations to help meet its goal for the food hub. Anyone interested in donating or learning more can email Gehrke at jgehrke@mnvac.org.

If You Go What: Open house for the new Minnesota Valley Action Council facility, 706 N. Victory Drive, Mankato. More information on the food hub will be available at the open house. When: 4-6 p.m. Monday, Sept. 16 Info: www.mnvac.org, jgehrke@mnvac.org, 345-2424 A Q&A about the food hub can be viewed at www.mnvac.org/foodhub.