Duluth cafeterias line up for local farmers' foodIf the beef you eat at a local hospital or college cafeteria this week tastes a bit fresher, credit your good fortune to more than two decades of a small but growing advocacy for locally grown foods.
By: Mike Creger, Duluth News Tribune
If the beef you eat at a local hospital or college cafeteria this week tastes a bit fresher, credit your good fortune to more than two decades of a small but growing advocacy for locally grown foods.
The local food movement takes a huge leap today in Duluth as large institutions like St. Luke’s, Essentia Health St. Mary’s Medical Center, and the campuses of the College of St. Scholastica and University of Minnesota Duluth begin buying and offering food from local suppliers. The Duluth Entertainment Convention Center will also be on board later this spring with vegetable buys.
It’s called the Western Lake Superior Food Hub, a pilot project aimed at connecting food providers in the region with “anchors” in the community like hospitals and schools. It won’t provide all of the food the cafeterias need, but any needs that can’t be met will be filled with the regular food service providers the institutions still rely on.
Janaki Fisher-Merritt and his Food Farm in Wrenshall will be supplying carrots to Essentia and UMD and broccoli to St. Luke’s.
It won’t turn what has been a healthy community-supported agriculture venture into a mega-producer, but he hopes the idea plants a seed for supporting more homegrown foods.
“Our idea is to start small and build some relationships,” Fisher-Merritt said.
He expects to boost his plantings of carrots by 15 percent and add 5 percent more broccoli plants.
Food Farm and Troy Salzer’s Sandy Hills Ranch grass-fed beef farm in Barnum will be the two suppliers in the pilot program this year.
The project comes out of Duluth’s Institute for a Sustainable Future, which is led by Jamie Harvie, with the help of an assortment of those who have supported locally grown food in the Twin Ports region. Harvie expects $150,000 flowing into the Hub, which will have a four-fold economic impact.
The guaranteed customer base “allows regional producers to secure financing, scale up production and improve associated infrastructure,” Harvie said.
It’s a dream come true for UMD ecology professor Randy Hanson, who has led the reclamation of the university’s farm north of Duluth, which is now growing food for the university’s food service.
“It’s maybe not a revolution but an evolution in food systems,” he said of the Hub. “This is just taking off.”
He sees the Hub as a way to show other large institutions, the ones that depend on a healthy relationship with the communities they serve, that buying local food is one way to help. It sends a message to students as well, he said.
“They become an informed food citizenry,” he said.
UMD food service buyer Claudia Englemeir said the Food Hub participation was an easy call after the successful partnership with the UMD farm and the school’s push for sustainable practices.
Because the food service is independent, it can pick and choose its supply vendors. It also doesn’t have federal mandates to follow like those at K-12 schools.
“We follow our motto,” she said. “It’s all about choices.”
Student reaction to food from local sources has been phenomenal, she said. Food service directors from the schools and hospitals have visited local farms and tasted products.
Harvie said Essentia and UMD had people pick out what they thought was the best-tasting beef in taste tests. The local beef was the preferred choice, he said.
UMD will have a public dinner Thursday night to showcase its locally grown foods.
Chelly Townsend at the DECC said she can’t wait to offer the beef at hockey games this fall. For now, it will purchase vegetables for the summer wedding season.
“We do everything we can do to buy local,” Townsend said, saying that paying a bit more pays off through the local economic boost.
The DECC also has a flexible supply system. It doesn’t have to fill any food truck quotas or take a penalty for ordering fewer items when products are in season.
“It’s based on price and reliability,” she said. “They have to make us happy.”
Harvie said a good model for the Hub is a program in southwestern Wisconsin where schools and hospitals in La Crosse began a cooperative program last spring called Fifth Season Cooperative. It has 17 suppliers and consumers, including K-12 schools.
U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan earlier this month visited the warehouse that is home to Fifth Season and other food companies. Merrigan has been touting the USDA’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative that is helping to develop food hubs across the nation.
Last week, the USDA released its first resource guide on food hubs. It includes a study on the economic impact of the 170 food hubs that the USDA counted in 2011.
“Now farmers, buyers, researchers, consumers or anyone interested in creating a food hub in their community can tap into a single resource,” Merrigan said Friday.
The USDA is also highlighting the several programs it has to help small farmers gain a foothold in the market.
Back to the past
At UMD, Englemeir said that what’s old is new again after 30 years on the job.
“I’ve seen things come full circle,” she said. In the late 1980s, convenience began to trump scratch cooking, she said. But changing attitudes about healthful food, especially on a campus of young people, has brought simpler local foods back to the fore, she said.
“It’s hard to change habits,” Englemeir said. Kitchen staff at UMD might have to peel a vegetable now rather than open a package of it cleaned and diced.
“It takes a lot of effort,” she said, and to know that others in the Food Hub are on board helps.
“It’s a big collaboration,” she said. “It’s an exciting time and I am really enjoying it.”
“This is good for everybody,” Fisher-Merritt said. “It helps inspire the rest of the community.”