Local food growth

By Sam Inglot

Transportation is a big challenge for the growing local food market

This story was corrected on Jan. 7 to say "Mid-Michigan Environmental Action Council."

Friday, Jan. 4 — The popularity and demand for locally grown food is increasing — however, this growing interest doesn’t come without challenges, according to two Lansing-area experts.

Specifically, the issue of how to get food to the markets that are demanding them was a main topic discussed today at a luncheon hosted by the Mid-Michigan Environmental Action Council.

The two presenters, Michelle Napier-Dunnings and Rory Neuner, had an open discussion with roughly 25 attendees. Napier-Dunnings is the executive director of Michigan Food and Farming Systems and Neuner is a consultant with the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems. The conversation compared buying local food to recycling — people will do it more often if it’s easy to do.

The growing popularity of local food presents transportation challenges because it takes building a transportation infrastructure “from scratch,” Neuner said. A farmer bringing his products to local markets is one thing, but how do you get locally grown food to the growing list of places — including hospitals, schools and restaurants — that are expressing interest in them?

Making it easier to buy locally grown food can start with food hubs, Neuner added. These are places where locally grown food can be stored, processed, marketed and distributed, and are typically brick-and-mortar establishments, though they can also exist online through Internet transactions between farmers and buyers.

A project planned at the Allen Neighborhood Center on Lansing’s east side is one example of a local food hub, which will be a 5,600-square-foot food building that will open later this year. It will act as a food storage area, workshop and learning space, as well as a year-round farmers market.

Even if there is an established food hub for farmers to use, there are still problems with shipping the goods to consumers who can’t stop by the farmers market. Some transportation challenges that local farmers might face include: Do they rent a truck to ship their goods? Do they hire a company to do it? How would the goods get to restaurants and schools?

Shipping fresh produce around town isn’t as easy as loading up a van and trucking the goods from location to location. Refrigeration, safety standards and deadlines all need to be worked out.

Neuner, who ran unsuccessfully for an At-Large Lansing City Council seat in 2011, is working in Ingham, Eaton, Clinton and Shiawassee counties to address some of the food hub challenges through the Michigan Food Hub Learning and Innovation Network, a project that is being coordinated by MSU and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Through the program, Neuner will try to connect local food organizations, advocates, producers and consumers to address issues facing the local food movement.

Neuner will be holding “learning circles” in the Greater Lansing area to stimulate conversation between local foodies and those interested in successfully buying at, selling at or managing a local food hub. There will be 90-minute sessions held every six weeks throughout the year. The discussions are co-sponsored by MSU Extension and the Allen Neighborhood Center.

Napier-Dunnings said “the window of opportunity is open” for the local food community to grow and expand. She said there are incredible entrepreneurial endeavors that could open up through the growth in interest of local food — including in the transportation area.