Nov. 6 2013 12:00 AM

Two Lansing-area ‘food hubs’ link farms and forks; year-round farmers market opens today

You can’t eat a concept, but you can swallow it.

The national trend of “food hubs” linking local farmers with local stomachs is finally wriggling down the gullet of greater Lansing.

So far, it’s a tale of two gulps. In the heart of Lansing’s east side, a warehouse has turned into a community kitchen and an exchange that links local farmers and buyers. Allen Market Place on East Kalamazoo Street will also become the winter home of the 10-year-old Allen Street Farmers Market, beginning today, and host a food pantry and other community-based food programs.

In the industrial park-ish area near I-96 and Hagadorn Road, north of Okemos High School, distributors of Michigan-made products are launching a different kind of food hub: a Food Innovation District, a cluster of local food distributors and processors backed by land-grant colossus MSU’s agriculture, marketing and packaging know-how.

The two projects are as different from one another as apples and radishes. (No oranges, please. Keep it local.) The Allen project is pure nonprofit community-based dogooding, tucked into an urban neighborhood. The Okemos project is for-profit all the way, poised like a Cisco Systems semi on the interstate, eager to tap into Michigan’s $9 billion agricultural industry and exploit a surge in consumer demand for locally grown food.

Clearly, there’s no set model here. Rich Pirog, food hub guru at MSU’s Center for Regional Foods, likes to say, “If youve seen one food hub, youve seen one food hub.”

There are about 230 food hubs in the country, with different sizes, shapes and business plans, according to food hub expert John Fisk, director of the nonprofit think tank Wallace Center at Winrock International, an agricultureoriented nonprofit to aid the poor.

About 60 percent of these are for-profit businesses plugged into the existing wholesale supply chain.

Food hubs aren’t even new to Michigan. Detroits Eastern Market did food hubby things long before the term came into vogue. West Michigan FarmLink in Grand Rapids, one of the first online farmers markets in the country, helps hundreds of small farmers and buyers find each other.

Food hubs are new to Lansing, however, and that’s a noteworthy omission, given the capital city’s central location in Michigan and the Great Lakes.

An Oct. 29 event launching the Okemos food hub featured a map that looked as if it had been peppered with birdshot aimed at Lansing. The dots marked 272 farms in a 100-mile radius, 111 within 25 miles of the capital.

Randy Bell, MSU’s Ingham County Extension director, called the area a “perfect crossroads” of interstate highways criss-crossing Michigan from Detroit to Grand Rapids to Chicago, “where the eaters are,” and stretching to the north, where many producers are.

Neal Valley, exchange manager at Allen Market Place, wants his exchange to be the first place to look in Ingham, Eaton and Clinton counties “if youre a restaurant, a caterer or a retail establishment that wants access to local food.”

It’s a simple idea. Farmers post their products for the week on Monday. Buyers find what they need, buy on line and pick up their produce at the Market Place on Wednesday, before the farmers market opens. Valley hopes the in-person schmoozes on Wednesday will further increase sales.

Since the Allen exchange launched in late August, 11 buyers have purchased from 15 producers, but the program is young.

Valley hopes that before long, the exchange will pay for itself. Farmers get 82 cents on the dollar, compared with wholesale rates that hover at 50 cents on the dollar.

“A farmer doesnt always have time to cold-call restaurants to see if theyre interested in buying local produce,” Valley said. “Those relationships build over time, and they tend to favor larger, well-established farmers.”

Institutions are a big target. Lynna Hassenger, director of food and nutrition services at Okemos Public Schools, has already bought a wide selection of local produce there.

As part of a statewide program started by the Michigan Hospitals Association, McLaren Greater Lansing and Sparrow hospitals have signed a pledge to provide 20 percent local food by 2020. Both have shown an interest in the Market Place launch.

"For Sparrow Hospital, 400 pounds of butternut squash is small potatoes," Valley said with a straight face. "The exchange lets bigger buyers order from more than one small farm, and farmers can sell what they have."

The exchange is one of three prongs of a conceptual fork at the new Allen Market Place. The other two are a community kitchen and the year-round farmers market.

It took 18 months and $650,000 to turn the Kalamazoo Street warehouse into a food hub, with the help of dozens of business and artisans who discounted their services or worked for free.

Along the way, two layers of ugly ceiling tile were torn away to reveal a pleasant surprise: the graceful arched ceiling of the building’s first tenant, Kircher Grocery Store.

A former neighborhood grocery was back in the food business.

Enthusiastic subcontractors, donors and volunteers converged on the project like ants. OLeary Paint donated all the paint. Almost all the contractors gave deep discounts. The Board of Water and Light donated equipment to run a line off the water main, saving the project $20,000.

The big money came from Capital Region Community Foundation, which got the project rolling with a $75,000 grant in 2012. Michigan Economic Development Corp. followed with $100,000. The biggest breakthrough came in early 2013, when the Allen project became one of five food hubs in the state to get about $200,000 from Michigan’s

Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. (The others are the Grand Traverse Regional Market Forgotten Harvest Food Processing Center in Detroit, Local Food Processing and Controlled Storage of Southeast Michigan and the U.P. Local Food Network.)

Even so, the budget was tight for the Allen Neighborhood Center’s ambitions. The project team almost lost heart after pricing a full commercial kitchen with a 10-burner range, oven and stainless steel fixtures at $50,000 to $75,000. Over the summer, enter Director Joan Nelson got wind that the entire kitchen at the former Korner Kitchen restaurant at Mount Hope and Pennyslvania avenues was up for grabs. A clinic and pharmacy moving into the old restaurant was willing to sell the works for under $10,000.

Serial eastside home restorer Dave Muylle, project manager at Market Place since January, and a team of volunteers hauled out everything that wasnt nailed down, and some fixtures that were, including a stove hood more than 11 feet long. The team rented a crane for a day to uproot and transport the massive kitchen vent at the old restaurant.

Nelson said the kitchen will be a key part of the Market Place and Allen Neighborhood Center’s overall community building plan. It will house classes and workshops in food prep, canning and other culinary arts and will be rented to entrepreneurs to prepare food for sale. Beginning in January, a culinary jobs training program will launch for unemployed and underemployed people who don’t have the time to become boysenberry jam magnates, but are looking for a food service job in a school, hospital, nursing home or restaurant.

Market Place even has a conference room with a wide-screen Smart TV and wireless setup (donated by the Gannett Foundation) for food prep and culinary skills training. Small farmers will get training in digital marketing and pricing skills and learn how to navigate the daunting process of getting GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certification.

Just how the new exchange will fit into the Allen Neighborhood Center’s goal of “food security” for low-income east siders remains to be seen. If Grand Rapids’ FarmLink is any indication, a lot of commerce on the exchange will funnel expensive artisan stuff (micro-grains, gourmet mushrooms) and high-priced pouches of worth-their-weight-in-cash greens to fine dining establishments and consumers who can afford them.

“A lot of folks that are trying to do local food work are struggling with that issue,” Valley said. He sees the exchange as part of a long-term vision to stabilize small and medium-sized farms by growing their sales “so they can market wholesale, tap into more markets, and be competitive with someone whos bringing trucks into Mexico.”

Nelson said Market Place plugs into the center’s food security goal in multiple ways. On Tuesdays, about 80 to 100 low-income or homeless people come to the center for gleaned bread and produce as part of the Breadbasket program. The program moved from the cramped offices of the Allen Neighborhood Center to the Market Place. This week’s gleanings included a few hundred pounds of surplus squash.

In 2005, Allen Street Farmers Market was the first nonprofit in Michigan to accept food stamps. The “plastic friendly” market now handles SNAP, Project Fresh and Senior Project Fresh benefits. Market Place will keep the farmers market active year round.

Food grown at the nearby Hunter Park Garden House, opened in 2008, will also be sold at the market.

Stretching the reach of the farmers market and the hoop house was uppermost in Nelson’s mind when the food hub was proposed six years ago. The exchange idea came along later.

"We wanted something all of these things could feed into,” Nelson said. “The market could become full time and greenhouse production could be sold, commercially and directly. We could do educational programming around food."

Meanwhile, in the rolling, hilly spread of industrial pole barns along I-96 in Okemos Oct. 29, several big players in the food hub universe assembled to announce a Food Innovation District.

The event’s host, the T.A. Forsberg real estate company, exploited the interest in local food in more ways than one. Forsberg is marketing several buildings in the area to potential food hub tenants. Easels touting available parcels of land were planted right next to steaming trays of breakfast casserole made from locally grown ingredients.

In a month and a half, the proposed Okemos hub will become the downstate home to Traverse City-based Cherry Capital Foods and Earthy Delights, a DeWitt-based artisanal foods distributor specializing in mushrooms. Cherry Capital plans to expand its operation in the area, its managing partner, John Hoagland, told the group.

Michigan is second to California in variety of crops grown — “and we have water,” Hoagland said. He predicted that the food hub could help billions of dollars stay in Michigan.

To put a cherry on the nascent Okemos food hub, Bell told the group MSU is “exploring the feasibility” of starting a “food accelerator” on land MSU owns nearby.

That doesn’t mean tossing a radish into MSU’s famous cyclotron. Bell said the state is home to over 650 “growth stage food businesses,” with sales from $5 million to $20 million and 10 to 50 employees, that fall through the cracks when it comes to marketing and distribution support.

“The challenge now is to engage with producers and with the community so we can market and brand this particular neighborhood as the place to do food business in Michigan,” Bell said.

Allen Street Farmers Market

Moves indoors to Allen Market Place directly behind Allen Neighborhood Center 1619 E. Kalamazoo St.

2:30-7 p.m. Nov. 6 through May (517) 999-3911 lizyf@allenneighborhood

Allen Market Place Exchange

Register at