Farm workers harvest asparagus at Golden Hart Farm in Hart. Asparagus was one of the first crops to be sold through the Muskegon Food Hub pilot program, and Golden Hart was the supplier. Courtesy Muskegon Farmers Market
As the Michigan growing season reaches its midpoint, a food hub patterned after state and national efforts is seeing a fruitful harvest.
The Muskegon Food Hub pilot program, launched in May, takes produce grown by farmers and sells it wholesale to community groups to help increase the healthy food supply to low-income residents.
Melissa Freye, communications director of the Community Foundation for Muskegon County, said the food hub is the “first test of business-to-business commerce for Muskegon.”
“(It’s) selling locally produced products from multiple farmers and food entrepreneurs to our schools, senior centers, restaurants and other institutions around our city, increasing healthy food access to our citizens and economic commerce for the farmers and Muskegon-based institutions.”
Established with $45,000 in grants and in-kind funding from the Consumers Energy Foundation, the Community Foundation for Muskegon County and the city of Muskegon, the pilot hub will operate through October. In November, organizers will assess the program and consider whether to continue it.
Marty Gerencer — project lead, a Muskegon County native and principal at national food systems consultancy Morse Marketing Connections — conducted a feasibility study in 2015 at the request of the city. It revealed interest and need in the region.
Gerencer said the pilot — designed using insights from the Michigan Food Hub, Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the MSU Extension and the National Food Hub — already has proven the viability of the idea.
“We’ve surpassed our goals to work with a few farmers and a few buyers to further test the concept of aggregating product for wholesale at the market and distributing it to the community,” she said.
“We have more farmers interested, more buyers interested, more sales than anticipated, and we have full support from the city of Muskegon to continue to build this out. We anticipate a full launch in 2018, but we won’t make that determination until we review the data.”
The food hub operates at the Muskegon Farmers Market on Tuesdays. Farmers from across the county bring their produce to sell to the market’s customers as usual, and they bring a separate supply to sell to the food hub core team, which in turn sells and distributes the product to businesses.
The hub team includes Ann Meisch, city of Muskegon; Michelle Primmer, Muskegon Farmers Market; Renae Hesselink, Kitchen 242 at the market; Chelsea Robinson, AgeWell Services; Dan Gorman, Whitehall/Montague Schools; Elissa Penczar, Career Tech Center; and Gerencer.
Gerencer said buyers tend to be small businesses, nonprofits and schools.
“As of right now, Ryke’s Bakery is purchasing product for its Muskegon and Grand Haven stores, AgeWell is purchasing for Meals on Wheels for about 1,100 seniors in area counties, Kids Food Basket has a high interest — but I’m not sure if they have signed up, Muskegon Public Schools anticipates ordering in August, and Whitehall Schools and Montague Schools (have) ordered and will pick up in August,” she said.
In addition to farm-fresh produce, the hub sells “value-added products,” such as dried cherries, strawberry jam, and frozen fruits and vegetables.
“There’s increasing interest from buyers, and the community in supporting our local growers and having access to local product,” Gerencer said. “So, the food hub supports that. And we’re really grateful the city of Muskegon has embraced this project. The fact that it’s housed at the market is a win-win, for the market and for the kitchen.”
Pending a decision on the long-term future of the food hub, Gerencer said the plan is to connect the hub to the Muskegon-to-Milwaukee cross-lake shipping initiative the Business Journal reported on in June. The shipping route will launch at the end of this month or in early September.
“This hub is a proof-of-concept for a larger distribution facility that would aggregate and distribute enough volume that would warrant the cross-lake shipping,” she said. “It’s definitely on our radar. We have the port just across the street, and we have interested parties.”
Gerencer said the success of the pilot will be measured primarily by sales volume and a few other factors.
“(We will review) sales, expenses, volume and then how the logistics worked, what challenges we came up against and how we solved those,” she said. “That happens weekly that we work through challenges. We’ve identified farmer, community and buyer feedback.”
To boost awareness of the hub and solicit additional feedback from growers and buyers, the Muskegon Food Hub will host an event from 2-4 p.m. Aug. 24 at the Muskegon Farmers Market.
“We wanted to make sure we had our systems down, so we will have a meet-and-greet … with our farmers to talk with them and expand the number of farmers and buyers who participate from across the county,” Gerencer said.