LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — The Douglas County Food Policy Council wants to create a "food hub" to link producers and farmers in the region with larger institutions that are interested in a steady supply of locally grown foods.
Council members told the Douglas County Commissioners recently that developing a centralized location to link the institutions and producers will be one of their top priorities this year, The Lawrence Journal-World reported (http://bit.ly/UPAsTg ).
"A food hub is that linkage between the local farmers and the institutions, like schools, hospitals, the jail, the grocery stores and the restaurants that want to have access to local foods," said Eileen Horn, who directs the Food Policy Council. "The customers are asking for it, and there's public interest in it, but they can't access enough consistent supply."
One of those who would be interested in using a food hub is Debbie Carter, who manages food service operations at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. She uses local produce whenever possible but said it's often hard to find large enough quantities for an institution that serves an average of 700 meals a day.
"A lot of times they'll call me and say, 'I have extra of this,' and that's how we use it," she said of area farmers. "There really is no place that they can take it to when they have extra, which is what is needed in Lawrence."
Horn said smaller-scale producers in Douglas County and the surrounding area are able to produce large volumes of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables on nearly a year-round basis because of "high tunnels" — semicircular hoop structures that function as modified greenhouses to extend the growing season.
"That has really changed the game in terms of season extension, because now you can get greens - there are local greens available in grocery stores right now, in January, and that's because of the season extension and high tunnels and greenhouses that people are utilizing," she said.
Local and regional food hubs have grown in popularity in recent years.
Good Natured Family Farms supplies local foods to Hen House Markets and Ball's Price Chopper Supermarkets in the Kansas City metropolitan area. In northwest Kansas and eastern Colorado, the High Plains Food Cooperative supplies local food to the Denver-area market through a network of participating farmers and ranchers.
Julie Mettenburg, executive director of the Kansas Rural Center who also a member of the Food Policy Council, said promoting local agriculture through food hubs encourages more diversity in farming.
"Our point of view is that it benefits the food and farming system if we have diversity in farming. So a food hub that would allow farmers to connect with local consumers allows that to become a viable economic alternative, she said.
Members of the Food Policy Council said they are studying different models of food hubs to determine the best fit for the area. Some are organized as cooperatives among farmers and producers and others are organized by purchasers, while some are community nonprofit organizations and others are for-profit enterprises, she said.
Council members said the next step will be identifying financing sources to get the operation started.
Information from: Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World, http://www.ljworld.com