The USDA is helping fund an effort to get products from local farms into the kitchens of large institutions in the region, such as colleges and hospitals. Officials say the demand for food from closer to home continues to grow, but the infrastructure to supply it has not kept up. WAMC”s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill reports
A grant from a US Department of Agriculture rural jobs program has been awarded to a non profit food policy organization, Wholesome Wave, for their New England Food Hub Cluster Initiative. The food hubs aggregate products from small to mid-size farms for processing and distribution to school cafeterias, college dining halls and hospitals.
USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who announced the $568,000 grant award during a visit to a farm in Deerfield Massachusetts Monday predicted the strategy would help to preserve farmland and create jobs.
According to the latest agriculture census , New England, has over the last five years experienced an increase in very small specialized farming operations, as well as growth in large scale operations. The trouble lies in the middle where farmers with gross annuals sales of about $250,000 are struggling.
Daniel Ross of Wholesome Wave said food hubs provide a kind of one stop shopping for the directors of institutional kitchens.
Ross said the food hubs his organization works with pay farmers up to 70 percent of the retail price for their products, while a typical food wholesaler will pay about 30 percent of the retail price.
Gus Schumacher, a former state agriculture commissioner in Massachusetts, who is Executive Vice President with Wholesome Wave said there are about a dozen food hubs now operating in New England. He said most are small and have been operating for less than a year.
The USDA grant will help pay for shared services, such as accounting, for the network of food hubs.
Congressman John Olver of Massachusetts, who was at Monday’s grant announcement at Williams Family Farm in Deerfield, said expanding food hubs could help improve the nation’s overall health by making farm fresh food available to more people in more places.