Thursday, April 24, 2014

Growing a food hub from a sprout

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave
April 24, 2014

Jeremy Andrews, CEO (Chief Excitement Officer) with his crew (Photo by Erik Holladay)

Connecting local farmers with people who want to buy the vegetables and animals they raise is what a food hub does. Jeremy Andrews is one of those creating such connections in the Battle Creek (Michigan) area. Zinta Aistars has the story. 

Sprout Urban Farms at 245 N. Kendall in Battle Creek is always sprouting new growth. It’s what happens on a farm. The nonprofit food sovereignty organization has roots that reach back to 2009, improving food accessibility throughout greater Battle Creek with a 2-acre urban farm, a network of 35 community gardens, and a mobile market that travels to underserved neighborhoods. One of Sprout’s newest outgrowths, Grown in BC Food Hub, has just surfaced.

"I’ve heard someone say, and it’s true, once you’ve seen one food hub, you’ve seen …. one food hub," says Jeremy Andrews, CEO (Chief Excitement Officer) of Sprout. Every such hub is different, he explains, serving the unique needs of the surrounding community.

The new effort, Grown in BC Food Hub, guided by MSU Center for Regional Food Systems, will connect local farmers with buyers for their produce. Buyers include schools, hospitals, assisted living facilities, housing developments, restaurants and other food service providers. 

"We started with Bright Star Farm, the 2-acre youth-run farm on Kendall," says Andrews. "That filled a need for healthy food in the neighborhood. That went along with our Community Garden Resource Center, the greenhouse at 103 Limit Street. But along the way, we befriended a lot of local farmers around Battle Creek. There was a disconnect between local farmers and local food service providers. The food service providers are buying food that travels long distance, sometimes thousands of miles, instead the food grown right here. So we wanted to start not another farm, but a way to support the farms already here. We need to keep that dollar here."

Sprout works mostly with small farmers that Andrews has gotten to know for their sustainable, chemical-free farming practices, and who pay a fair living wage to their farm workers. 

"By small, we mean more like 10 acres than tens of thousands of acres," says Andrews. "Anything less than 100 acres for the most part. Right now, we are working with Green Gardens Community Farm in Battle Creek, EarthSmith Food & Forest Products in Dowling, Canaan Farm Orchard in Climax, Under the Stone Garden in Scotts, Long Valley Farm in Vicksburg, and others. We have 12 farms on our list now."

And the market is rich. Buyers for the local produce, Andrews says with visible excitement, include Bronson Battle Creek. The hospital buys up what doesn’t get sold in farmers markets and adds that produce to their menus. 

"It’s a cool symbiosis," Andrews says. "We’re also composting their food scraps, along with what we pick up at the local food bank."

FireKeepers Casino, Malia Mediterranean Bistro, Arcadia Brewing Company and Hogzilla BBQ are also on the fast-growing buyer list. 

Andrews is strolling down Michigan Avenue, downtown Battle Creek, as he talks about the new food hub, and he points out one restaurant, and another pub, and a third tavern where he delivers produce or is working on meeting a new food need. As he walks, he is interrupted by friendly greetings every few steps. He’s a known presence in Battle Creek. 

"We’re not just building a business," he acknowledges. "We’re building relationships, friendships. We’re connecting to people on a real level."

Andrews sketches out a quick diagram on a piece of paper. With the food hub at the center, other circles spiral out of that center. Larger wholesale efforts include the food providers. Mobile markets provide access for those who might otherwise go without, the underserved, the low income, the elderly. 

Another circle includes small restaurants. Another encircles the Community Garden Resource Center that now also includes a seed bank, educational workshops, and a tool library. Yet another is a growing farm-to-school program.

"More and more schools are asking us about starting community gardens for their students," he says. "That’s our end goal, to get good food into schools, into kids. We’re working with every school in Battle Creek right now at some level, whether it’s a garden, or composting, or support. We want to be the change that needs to happen."

Andrews admits, not hiding the grin beneath his signature mustache, that he ...


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