Nonprofit Delivers Local Produce to Schools, Restaurants Around Charlottesville

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Dick Proutt is a small farmer. A very small one. At Down Branch Farm, he raises chickens and quails and grows lettuce, squash, melons and tomatoes on about an acre. In high summer, his weekly haul might include just five dozen quail eggs, 40 pounds of tomatoes and 20 pounds of squash.

The Jefferson Area Board of Aging wants exactly that kind of food for the more than 3,000 meals it serves each week. But it needs 100 pounds of tomatoes. And that's for one day's worth of salads at its 11 area senior citizen centers. Until now, JABA had only two options: Cobble together an order by making weekly pickups at several local farms, or call a one-stop national distributor.

But this month, Proutt's tomatoes showed up in a salad of local lettuces and carrots at JABA's day center in Charlottesville. Proutt dropped off his harvest at the Local Food Hub, a new nonprofit group that aggregated his produce along with that of 20 other local small farmers and delivered it to JABA's central kitchen.

Projects like the Hub are popping up around the country. And they could be the missing link between supply of and demand for products grown close to home. In Louisville, Grasshoppers Distribution sells the produce of 100 state farmers to 75 restaurants and schools. In Burlington, Vt., the nonprofit Intervale Center is aggregating produce from 20 farmers to sell to individuals and, this winter, to local restaurants, hospitals and universities. In Northern California, the pioneering Growers Collaborative estimates that over the past year it delivered 400 tons of local produce to Kaiser Permanente's 19 regional hospitals.

Such networks also are a priority for the Obama administration, which hopes they will improve rural economies and promote healthful eating: "What we've got to do is change how we think about, for example, getting local farmers connected to school districts because that would benefit the farmers delivering fresh produce," Obama told the Organizing for America health-care forum last week.

"There are so many new producers cropping up in America. Their best opportunity to expand is a local market," said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. "It's enhanced if they can be joined together with other local producers so sufficient quality and quantity can be established for schools, hospitals, jails and other purchasers."

The Local Food Hub's director, Kate Collier, hadn't intended to get into the wholesale produce business. She and her husband, Eric Gertner, own a gourmet food store, Feast, in Charlottesville. Feast sells jams, chutneys, meats, cheeses and produce; the produce has the lowest profit margins.

In April 2008, Collier made a presentation to a panel convened by local food advocates that outlined how a new distribution system could support small farmers and improve access to their products. "I told them, 'This is where I see the holes are,' " she said. "Everybody jumped on the idea. They said if there was one phone number to call, they'd do it."

Last fall, Collier began to put a plan into action. She raised $305,000 from local foundations and individuals and established a nonprofit group. She leased a 3,100-square-foot warehouse. She bought a refrigerated truck for deliveries and purchased $3 million in liability insurance, a requirement to sell to large institutions. She also hired a staff of five to market the new organization, manage the warehouse and educate the community about the benefits of local food.

Farmers and local businesses have welcomed the Hub, which began making deliveries in early July. Proutt, of Down Branch Farm, was the first to sign up. The former cabinetmaker had seen his business dry up with the building bust and had decided to try farming as a second career. This spring, he sold at the Charlottesville farmers market. "It was neat to talk to people. But for us, we have so much work to do out here, it was a waste of time. We can make more money in the morning with one delivery" than by spending a day at the market, Proutt said.

Larger farms also see benefits. By selling to the Hub, Roundabout Farm's Megan Weary spends more time farming and less time marketing and making deliveries.

For example, working with a company such as Whole Foods Market requires a mountain of paperwork. Weary has sold to the high-end grocer since 2006. This summer, it took six weeks to get her heirloom tomatoes into stores.

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