Food Hub Can Support ‘Farm to School’ Initiative

Editor, News-Register:

Here at Grow Ohio Valley, we were pleased and encouraged to see Lisa Summers’ article on the emerging “Farm to School” program — and the editor’s followup.

More institutional buyers are seeking local food, and more local farmers need to be connected to those opportunities. But as the editor pointed out: there’s a “chicken and egg” dilemma. How do we convince local farmers to scale up to meet the massive food requirements of public schools, without guaranteed sales? Meanwhile, how do local school commit to buy from local farmers who are too small to meet demand?

One answer: “food hubs.” Food hubs exist to collect products from “small farms” to create a large enough to supply to meet the demand from big buyers. Food hubs secure contracts and sales with large buyers by aggregating local food into a single place.

If a school needs 100 dozen eggs per week, a food hub can do that by collecting eggs from 10 farmers, each of whom produce 10 dozen eggs per week. The same can be said for vegetables, meat, and value-added products like bread and cheese.

Grow Ohio Valley operates just such a food hub. We can aggregate from the little guys to meet the demand of the big guys. Our food hub can integrate the needs of farmers and buyers in a to a food system that places fresh, local food where it needs to be.

To the schools, we would add that we have seen firsthand that a school lunch could be a child’s best chance at a nutritious meal for that day. That’s a powerful motivator. And to the WVDA folks, GrowOV was founded on a study of the flight of food dollars through big box stores and on to faraway cities. Keeping food dollars at home can be an economic benefit for the state that is hard to overestimate. Lower transportation costs. Fresher food. Improved public health. It’s a smart way to go.

Renee Griffin and Crest Gallagher are thought leaders in getting healthy, locally-grown food to our students. Their challenges principally revolve around the logistics of matching up supply and demand. That’s the work of a food hub.

Meanwhile, we have a cultural opportunity for our children. We want them to want this food, and to know something about how to grow it. We want them to be healthy and self-sufficient. That’s why we make education a big part of Grow Ohio Valley’s mission. We’ve put school gardens in a half-dozen schools, from Head Start to middle school, and our SPROUT program adds “food literacy” and gardening skills to the mix. Our forthcoming “Hydroponics in Schools” will bring state-of-the-art growing systems into five more Ohio County schools.

We’ve brought independent growers together for our CSA and Mobile Market programs, and our planned downtown Public Market will only expand that platform of connections. Now, thanks to forward-thinking from school nutritionists and the Dept. of Agriculture, we have a chance to make even bigger inroads to a vibrant local food economy. We agree with the editor that this issue is worthy of investment in strategy and infrastructure.

Whatever deliberations may lie ahead for the school system and the Dept. of Agriculture, GrowOV sees the Farm to School as a long-awaited affirmation of the mission we’ve pursued for years. And our food hub is ready and willing when it comes to solving the nuts-and-bolts logistics of local family farms feeding local children.

Danny Swan

Wheeling

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