A cooperative local food distribution company founded by the Heartland Communities nonprofit group has been helping small grocery stores in the region deal with unusually high demand for some food items.
The Plowshares Food Hub has been reaching out to retailers because “there seems to be shortages of certain items people are panic buying, so the store shelves are empty a lot of times,” said Jain Young, Heartland Communities administrator.
“So, there are a few local grocery stores, small grocery stores, where we are supplying things that we can get from farmers right now. Eggs are the big thing, but there’s also other local meat producers that are happy to supply.”
Plowshares describes itself as a for-profit agricultural cooperative with a multi-stakeholder ownership structure controlled by the parties most engaged in its success who have the most incentive to be highly productive and efficient.
With Parkview Health sponsorship, its grand launch took place early last May at the Joseph Decuis Farm.
Dedicated to the inspection, aggregation and distribution of top-quality, locally sourced foodstuffs, its primary mission is to get as much of the money from the sale of local products into producers’ pockets as possible.
It began last year by targeting mostly institutional buyers such as school commissaries, restaurants and grocery stores.
“We were supplying a few restaurants with some of the summer produce but … we haven’t been doing much of that over the winter, so the restaurants closing has not affected us at all,” Young said.
“There are local farmers that it did affect a lot. Gunthorp Farms, they sell meat, pork, turkeys and ducks and different things. I know the majority of their sales were to high-end restaurants in Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis and further afield than that, which has virtually dried up,” she said.
“They’ve had to pivot and package for sale to households and they’ve done a great job doing that. They’re not selling through the Food Hub right now, but we’re available if they want to. I think they are doing home deliveries and so are several other local farms.”
Restaurants throughout the state have seen all but their take-out business shut down temporarily to reduce coronavirus risk.
Wood Farms, which supplies a couple of Indianapolis restaurants and 10 in the Fort Wayne area including Bravas, has started selling whole sides of beef directly to consumers. And it planned to have a business Facebook page up soon where smaller amounts could be ordered online.
“Mostly, we’ve been delivering meat to the restaurants so they can feed laid-off workers. This will be our third week, and it’s about 500 pounds a week,” said Dennis Wood, co-owner.
“Not that we’re doing so great, because we’ve lost all of our customers,” he said. “I think we’re all in a state of concern, but I felt the first order of business was to … get food out to people who lost their jobs.”
Young said it is ready to help meat suppliers in need of distribution, and at one point not long ago it was preparing to distribute for farmers that supply winter goods to the Fort Wayne Farmers Market, when it looked like the state’s crowd limits could require it to shut down.
“But, the Winter Market was not shut down. They worked really hard, did a good job and implemented some best practices for social distancing and they’re only letting in a few people at a time, so it’s not crowded,” she said.
The Food Hub has taken steps as well to reduce coronavirus risk, such as using hand sanitizer, social distancing, and keeping the stops at its 1010 Coliseum Blvd. location very brief, Young said.
“Since we’re in the off season and we’re not keeping regular hours it’s mostly by appointment,” she said. “We typically meet them at the dock where we can get it to them right at their car.”
During the off-season, “it’s a very small business with very small orders right now, so it’s not a whole lot of contact and not a whole lot of risk,” she said.
The Food Hub uses a convenient Open Food Network online ordering platform, which accepts individual as well as institutional orders.
Its web address is https://tinyurl.com/thpao6f.
Last summer, the Food Hub sold about $18,000 in produce over three months through a $35 weekly bag program that started in July, “which is not too bad for our first year,” Young said. “But we’d like to do better this year.”
“Last year it was a really rough spring and the farmers had a hard time planting and getting things to grow because there was so much rain and they had to continually replant,” she said.
“So, depending on the weather, we could have an earlier season this year.”
During the off-season, Food Hub orders must be placed by Sunday for pickup the following Saturday.