A bigger bite of the apple

Editor’s note: With better access to local food and increased awareness of its health benefits, everyday people are jumping on the local food bandwagon. But a few organizations across the Upper Peninsula aren’t content with providing local food on a small scale, and banded together to create the U.P. Food Exchange. This four-part series will focus on the efforts of that organization, and the Central U.P. Food Hub in particular, in bringing local food to a broader audience. Today, the U.P. Food exchange and food hubs are defined.

MARQUETTE – Farmers markets and community supported agriculture paint a rosy picture of local food and local farms.

People can meet the folks growing their food, can talk with them about seeds and soil.

But according to Marquette Food Co-op Community Liaison Natasha Lantz, it’s time for local food to think bigger than the family kitchen table. It’s time to think school lunchrooms, hospital cafeterias, restaurant menus.

So how do local farmers find a way to muscle into a market heavily dominated by national food distributers?

“Right now, our current global food system really kind of circumvents local growers – they’re cut out completely,” Lantz said. “So, how do we make the markets available to local growers?”

The answer seems simple enough: Aggregate local food to one site so large orders can be fulfilled by multiple farms and then provide a system of distributing that food.

But nothing is ever as simple as it seems, as is evidenced by the work of a new organization, the Upper Peninsula Food Exchange.

The food exchange is broken down into three distinct food hubs: western, central and eastern, each run by their own organization, the Western U.P. Health District, the Marquette Food Co-op and the Michigan State University Extension, respectively.

Lantz said the food exchange works as a resource portal, connecting people and institutions with information on how to access local food. Each food hub is then responsible for following through on that connection.

Currently, the eastern food hub is the farthest along among the three hubs, with an aggregation site for local food already chosen.

Lantz said the central food hub – as it waits for its aggregation site to be completed at the new Marquette Food Co-op located at 502 W. Washington St. – is still learning about farming operations of which it was never aware.

“We’re getting a better picture of what U.P. agriculture looks like,” Lantz said.

Though the fledgling food exchange has yet to nail down an aggregation site in the west end of the U.P., and the aggregation site in the central food hub is not ready for use, Lantz said much of the infrastructure for the food exchange, has already been laid down, thanks to a $165,000 grant from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Lantz and other staff at the co-op have been busy working with the two other food hubs in launching a website for the umbrella organization, www.upfoodexchange.com.

On the site is a directory of small farms, which the co-op has been producing since 2005. But more importantly, the website is home to the exchange’s online marketplace, a key component in getting local farmers access to bigger institutional buyers.

Lantz said the marketplace gives bigger institutions a way to place an order in one spot, rather than forcing them to call several different farms.

“What’s happening all over is there’s community supported agriculture, there’s farmers markets. You, as a citizen, can go to a farmer and buy from their farm stand, but for a restaurant or a school or a hospital, they’re very used to ordering from one main supplier,” Lantz said. “So when you have to call 10 to 12 different farms to get enough for an order, it becomes very cumbersome. So what a food hub can do is bring that product together and, say there’s tomatoes from four different farms, you could aggregate those together and fill an order for a certain poundage.”

And though the online marketplace is run by the food exchange, it’s up to each local food hub to set up their own aggregation sites, which would actually fulfill the orders.

Farmers and potential buyers can still go to www.upfoodexchange.com to sign up for the online marketplace service, but without aggregation sites in the western and central food hubs, it is currently up to the farmers fulfilling the order to coordinate with the purchasing institution on the logistics of getting that food where it needs to be.

Once food aggregation sites are up and running at all three food hubs, Lantz said the next big step for the food exchange is developing a system of distribution in each hub as well as across the U.P.

In that vein, Lantz said the U.P. Food Exchange has already been studying current distribution networks across the Upper Peninsula for the past year.

“We’ve been looking at different trucking companies, both coming and going out of the Upper Peninsula, and by looking at that, seeing there’s so many of them that leave the U.P. empty,” Lantz said. “They’re back-hauling nothing.”

Lantz said the food exchange is hoping to work with distribution companies currently running trucks through the U.P. in the hopes they may be interested in filling those empty trucks with local food.

“The U.P. Food Exchange nor any of the food hubs have the financial means or the desire to have trucking companies of their own,” Lantz said. “It makes more environmental sense and financial sense to see what systems do we have in place and who are the most willing players to say, ‘Yes, let’s trying something like that.'”

Along with finalizing aggregation sites and distribution, Lantz said the central food hub is also looking at trying to increase production from local farms.

“Currently, there’s not enough product being produced in the Upper Peninsula to meet institutional demand,” Lantz said.

To learn more about the U.P. Food Exchange, visit its website at www.upfoodexchange.com.

On Tuesday: With so many projects needed to be completed to ensure success for the central food hub and in turn, the U.P. Food Exchange, Lantz and others like her will have their work cut out for them. But, they’re not going at it alone. The next installment will focus on how the state and federal governments are helping to grow the local food movement.

Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.