Most of the food consumed in northeast Indiana travels many, many miles before making it to the plate, and several residents interested in shortening that distance plan to discuss the subject and learn more about it at the Fort Wayne Local Food Summit.

“There’s a huge and growing demand for local food,” said Jain Young, who will be among the speakers at the day-long event scheduled for March 16 at the classic ballroom of Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

Young is developing a business plan for a northeast Indiana food hub as project manager for the Plowshares local food distribution system project of Heartland Communities, where she is the administrator.

Studies show an increasing number of consumers prefer locally-produced food because they consider it fresher, more seasonal, better tasting and more nutritious. They also like spending food dollars locally “to support the local economy and to minimize the carbon footprint, because it doesn’t have to travel so far,” she said.

That presents a big opportunity for area farmers, restaurants, grocers and food service operations because “the average meal in Indiana travels 1,500 miles and most of it could be produced in Indiana,” Young said.

Last fall, the Northeast Indiana Regional Food Network hired the Manheim Solutions consultancy with a $43,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct a strategic study for the development of a regional food economy.

Developing a local food economy

Development efforts under consideration - and already underway in some cases - include forming or improving regional food hubs, incubators, farm-to-fork initiatives, farmers markets, food festivals, cooking education, urban agricultural production, community kitchens and neighborhood spaces.

A food production asset mapping phase of the study started around Nov. 1 and Sylvia Lovely, who works for the firm out of Lexington, Ky., will be among its consultants who will be sharing some of its findings at the summit, she said.

“It’s been an eye opener in terms of what’s already there,” she said. “Networks are already formed with farms working with local restaurants.”

The second phase of the study will look at the level of interest in local food among the region’s food buyers, and the summit will provide an opportunity for Manheim consultants to meet some of them, Lovely said.

In later phases of the study, the firm will produce a business plan for the 11-county region “to develop a local economic development strand around food,” she said. “It’s about improving prosperity and increasing wealth.… We need to take an opportunity while people are interested.”

Prompting discussion

Vickie Hadley, Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service director for Allen County, will introduce presenters at the summit and help facilitate discussions among the people attending it, which she said would be one of the most important parts of the event.

She will be joined in welcoming everyone to the summit by Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry, and the first presentation will update the audience on the city’s urban garden program, which is supported with community development block grant funding.

An Indiana Department of Education official will discuss the state’s Farm to School Initiative, designed to help include local farms in school cafeteria food supplier networks.

An important part of a local food hub’s role in that would be arranging for the group certification of its producers, Hadley said. Obtaining certification would require producers to have stringent food safety practices in place and would require the hub to have a means of tracking back to its source of all the food it sells.

Grocers, restaurants and schools “have pretty high standards they need to meet and we need to be right up there with them,” she said.

Farmers participating in the hub will use software to post information on the amount and price of produce and other products they will offer for sale each week. Buyers use it to place and pay for orders electronically, in advance of pickup at a designated location. Heartland Communities does not yet have a location for the aggregation point, Young said.

The Fort Wayne area hub will work much like the Hoosier Harvest Market does, which began about four years ago to serve the Indianapolis area, she said.

In addition to consumers, the cloud-based ordering system for the food hub can be used for purchasing by restaurants, retailers and institutional customers such as schools and hospitals. Institutional customers will need to meet with farmers to plan production well in advance.

Bringing all those parties together in one place for a common dialog will help them “figure out who’s truly interested and wants to step up to the plate and get involved and take some leadership to move this thing forward,” Hadley said. “The networking that will be occurring that day will be amazing.”

An opportunity to continue that type of discussion will take place March 21 during a Heartland Communities “Meet the Buyer” event at Community Harvest North, 1010 Coliseum Blvd. North.

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