MVAC food hub file

Minnesota Valley Action Council's Joe Domeier goes through a box of fresh vegetables at the organization's Food Hub in 2014. The program will end in October after four years of connecting area farmers to customers who want local produce. File photo

MANKATO — Citing unsustainability, the Minnesota Valley Action Council announced its Food Hub program will close at the end of October.

The Food Hub was established in 2014 as a way to connect consumers who want local produce to farmers in the area. Without it, buyers would need to go directly to the farmers for the goods and vice versa.

The decision to end the Food Hub came down at the nonprofit’s board meeting Monday. Amanda Mackie, executive director of Minnesota Valley Action Council, said she’s grateful to the buyers who did sign up for the program. There just weren’t enough of them.

“We gave ourselves until the end of the summer to see how things went, and we’re not even close to approaching that profitability point,” she said.

The Food Hub had been operating at a loss for awhile, she said, adding the nonprofit hopes to find a more sustainable way to support local farming over the next year.

“Taking a pause and suspending this for the time being is really what we wanted to do,” she said.

The program’s current summer Community Supported Agriculture program, which runs for 18 weeks, will conclude in mid-October before the hub closes Oct. 31. Winter distributions already paid for will be reimbursed.

News of the closure hit both farmers and consumers hard. Natasha Frost, an owner of Friesen’s Family Bakery, called the Food Hub a local gem that her business wants to help in whatever way possible.

“The Food Hub was a local treasure, to lose it is heartbreaking,” she said. “But we’re going to work closely with Joe (Domeier, the Food Hub manager) this next month to ensure we can do whatever we can from Friesen’s perspective to continue buying from amazing producers.”

To do so will require working with individual farmers on purchasing, delivery and other logistics, a far more time-consuming endeavor.

“We now have to develop relationships and trust with each individual producer,” Frost said. “We have to figure out delivery, pricing, sourcing for all items on the menu.”

As a go-between, the Food Hub handled those details for the last four years. The program originally opened with the help of grant funding, including a $100,000 boost from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Mackie said the nonprofit hoped the Food Hub would find enough buyers in the form of area schools, businesses and individuals. While Friesen’s, Gustavus Adolphus College and individuals signed up for the Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, program proved loyal from the start, others already had an ordering process in place for produce.

Sharon Dexheimer has been signed up for the CSA program since the hub opened. She liked how the program was prepaid, offered convenient weekly pickups, and introduced her to veggies like bok choy or kale that she hadn’t tried before.

The Food Hub ending will impact her weekly meal prep, she said.

“I will definitely miss it, and I know my menu and my diet will probably change until I figure something out for next year,” she said. “It was a big part of my weekly menu.”

Buying local will still be important to her, she said, but it won’t be anywhere near as convenient if she has to buy CSAs directly from farmers.

The program balanced giving fair prices for local goods to consumers with ensuring competitive wages for area farmers. Ben Penner, who operates Ben Penner Farms locations near Henderson and Belle Plaine, said the Food Hub’s closure is a big loss for locally grown food.

The Food Hub helped bring his whole-wheat grain and wheat flour to local customers. He said having this type of scalable distribution in place is essential to businesses like his.

“Those customers could buy directly from me, but I don’t have their information and it presents a challenge for distribution,” he said.

He said there’s still strong interest in local organic produce, so any options to revamp the Food Hub should be explored.

“That would be great,” he said. “If there was some other way, I’m open to hearing what they would be. Anything that can get more local food to people who want it in the area is good.”

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArolaMFP.

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