The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on international trade networks, and it’s had an unprecedented impact on global food supply chain dynamics. It’s made it more difficult for rural communities like ours to access healthy and affordable food. The North Coast Growers’ Association (NCGA) is trying to enhance food access by establishing better connections between local farmers and buyers.
“One of the best things that COVID did for us was provide a shift to Zoom and the ability to have all of the players in one room and have conversations about food access,” Megan Kenney, NCGA’s director of cooperative distribution, told the Outpost in a recent interview. “We were all talking about these local issues as well as global trends with the food supply chain and the creation of a food hub seemed like a natural next step in addressing shortcomings in our infrastructure.”
The idea for a local food hub came about shortly after the NCGA initiated its Harvest Box program, which provides community members of all income levels with locally grown produce. The program’s success inspired local stakeholders to look for new ways to support local food producers and make it easier for farms and wholesale buyers to do business together.
“At the onset of the pandemic, the Humboldt Food Policy Council and UC Cooperative Extension had many phone conversations with local agencies and tribes that feed our community,” Dorina Espinoza, an advisor with the UC Cooperative Extension for Humboldt and Del Norte counties, told the Outpost. “What we learned added energy to what many people in our community have known for some time, we need a food hub to help fill a gap in and strengthen our food system here on the North Coast.”
The food hub will connect local food producers with restaurants and agencies that feed our community, such as Food for People and the Humboldt County Office of Education (HCOE).
“By connecting food producers with food businesses, food serving agencies, and consumers we can better match how much local food we produce with how much local food we consume, help expand local food sales and mitigate the risk a food producer would take by increasing food production,” Espinoza added.
Erin Derden-Little is the farm-to-school coordinator for the HCOE. Her job is to find local food to incorporate into high-quality meals for students.
“Local sourcing is a challenge in our rural area, especially for our smaller, outlying districts,” Derden-Little wrote in an email to the Outpost. “It is financially infeasible for local farmers to drive long distances to deliver small volumes to individual sites. And of course, the few distributors that serve our schools do not carry local produce either. [We’ve] experimented with different ways to solve the local procurement puzzle. Our greatest success has come from taking a more active role in purchasing and distribution.”
Her team has essentially created a mini food hub for local schools by serving as the go-between for local farmers and school districts. The NCGA’s food hub will serve as a larger version of what HCOE has implemented in local schools for the past year, she said.
The food hub will also streamline the payment process between farmers and buyers. Currently, if a restaurant owner wants to order local produce, they have to contact their farmer each week to find out what is available, make the order and pay each invoice individually. This process can take a lot of time and energy, Kenney said, so only a handful of local chefs are able to source local produce this way.
“I used to work for Christine Silvers at the Humboldt Soup Company and every Saturday she walks around the Arcata Plaza farmer’s market and gets seasonal produce from local farms,” she said. “She has spent a really long time developing those relationships and figuring out who will have certain products at different points in the season and has been able to create almost all of her menus around a seasonal concept.”
On top of that, farmers do not necessarily operate on the same clock as the restaurants they serve. Several deliveries may come in shortly after opening whereas another might come in during the middle of a lunch rush.
“There are eight cars in the drive-thru, we’re going a mile a minute and a farmer will come in with, like, 10 cabbages. Someone will have to step off of the line to receive it and take the invoice,” Kenney said. “All of those invoices have to be entered into QuickBooks and paid individually. …A lot of business owners don’t have the flexibility in their schedule to do something like that.”
That’s where the food hub comes in. The NCGA plans to simplify the entire process by coordinating orders, deliveries and payments for each farm and wholesale buyer. This means both parties will have one point of contact, one delivery to make or receive and only one invoice to pay.
“Basically, they will be able to visit an online store where they can find out what is available from multiple farms,” Kenney said. “We would receive that order and once ordering closes for the week, we would let each farm how many cases of each item was ordered from them. At that point, the farmer writes one invoice to us that we pay instead of having them write 10 or 15 invoices. Then we would write one invoice to the recipient for exactly what they ordered so they don’t have to pay 10 or 15 invoices. They just pay the food hub.”
The food hub is currently in its pilot phase. One of the program’s participants, Nicholas Kohl, owner of the Oberon Grill in Eureka, said increased access to local food will give him the opportunity to tailor his menu to the local calendar.
“I am excited about the program because, from a restaurant owner’s point of view, it’s difficult to know what we’ll need from the market,” Kohl told the Outpost in a recent interview. “I can give them a wish list of what we’re looking for and they will get it for me. The NCGA has a much better idea of who has what and what can be utilized on a commercial scale. …If developing this relationship can help me get a better view of the growing cycles, I can have a locally sourced menu and be reliant on local farms rather than national and international producers. For me, that’s really important moving forward.”
The NCGA is currently looking for a brick-and-mortar location. Kenney said they have their eye on a space in Eureka that has a warehouse, a commercial kitchen and a retail space. Ideally, they would like to rent out the commercial kitchen to local producers.
“A lot of our farmers need a large kitchen to process all their pickles or their jam, things that need to be done in a commercial kitchen, but they don’t need access year-round,” she said. “If we are able to secure funding for this space, we would have commercial kitchen space and we would build out the rest with some dry storage and cold storage, and an area that could be a staging area for our Harvest Boxes as well.”
The NCGA is seeking $350,000 to launch operations. Kenney said they’ve has applied for several grants and is looking to launch a donation campaign to get things started. She anticipates $400,000 in gross income in the first year of operations. Within five years, she projects $1,400,000 in gross income, which will be reinvested in the local food system.