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Food incubators produce jobs, food security

It may seem strange that Ohio’s most successful food incubators are in the Buckeye State’s economically-depressed Appalachian southeast and in the heart of industrial agriculture in its northwest flatlands.

But the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks’ Food Ventures Program (ACEnet) in Athens and the Center for Innovative Food Technology’s Northwest Ohio Cooperative Kitchen (NOCK) outside of Bowling Green have spawned hundreds of small food businesses, created millions of dollars in food sales, and vastly increased local food options in restaurants and grocery stores in the two regions.

Now, representatives from the incubators are sharing their model with communities in Southwest Ohio concerned about food security and desperate for economic development. In September they met jointly with city officials from Wilmington, Yellow Springs and Xenia.

“We need to re-think where our food comes from, how it gets produced and become more involved with it,” said NOCK’s Rebecca Singer at the two-hour meeting at the Wilmington city building.

“All of us have been hit by a perfect storm of the economy, and we have a perfect storm of recovery with the mind shift in local foods and importance of taking care of your local economy,” said Larry Fisher of ACEnet’s Food Ventures.

Incubators may also provide a financial incentive for Ohio farmers to switch from the dominant corn and soybean rotation to the diverse variety of vegetables, fruits, cheeses, milks and meats coveted by the state’s consumers. In short, it means fresher, healthier food and more sustainable agriculture jobs.

Critical to the incubators’ success are shared community kitchens, with equipment like stoves, kettles, bakery ovens, mixers, dehydrators, can and jar fillers, refrigerators and freezers. It may seem obvious that those growing local fruits and veggies and raising animals for milk and meat have access to these facilities. But while once abundant, community kitchens all but disappeared in Ohio and across the country in an era of mono-cropping and feedlots, mammoth centralized processing and supermarket shopping.

The food incubator movement is about bringing those shared kitchens back.

Consider the stunning facts: 90 percent of food in supermarkets contains wheat, corn or soybeans; Walmart is the top grossing food retailer in the world, and more than 80 percent of beef packing and soybean processing are controlled by just four firms.

When Ohio families depend upon industrial food operations, from the fossil-fueled farms to the high-energy processing centers to the diesel-burning semi-trucks, to feed themselves, they are not secure.

Small-scale community kitchens open to the public are rare indeed. In Ohio, Athens chicken farmers have to drive to Dayton to process their chickens, while one Cleveland salad dressing company drives to Athens. Last year, lacking a mill within driving distance to grind his wheat to sell flour locally, one Athens area farmer built his own.

With access to a community kitchen, the farmer, or an enterprising entrepreneur, can process seasonal fruits and vegetables when they’re fresh and ready into a variety of finished products: jams, sauces, syrups, ice cream toppings, pies and more and sell them to area restaurants and stores, getting more money for their products than if they sold fresh--hence the term “value-added.”

Making the step from raw farm products to cans in a consumer’s pantry is not trivial. It takes more than access to equipment, it also takes business and marketing sense, relationships with area stores and restaurateurs and compliance with state regulations, to name a few.

Enter the business services component of food incubators.

At NOCK, aspiring entrepreneurs need at least $500 in start-up funds, liability and product insurance, a business plan, and to have completed on-site food safety training. Then for just $10 to $20 per hour, they can rent the facility to cook, process,package and store their food product. Evening classes and technical assistance on marketing, connecting with retail establishments, nutritional analysis and checking shelf-life are available for nominal fees.

“Most farmers are not entrepreneurs,” said Fisher on the importance of business guidance. “Usually they’re good with plants and animals and not people.”

ACEnet’s kitchen facility has seen 100 businesses come through over its 17-year history. In its 130,000-square-foot facility, 200 to 300 cases of a product can be produced in a mere eight hours. In total, ACEnet’s 35 tenant businesses yield $9 million to $10 million in food sales per year and employ 250 to 300 people.

From salsas and barbecue sauces to breads and cheeses, the two incubators are producing food for the community and income for its residents.

“Athens is in the top three local food economies in the country,” Fisher said.

“This is what it takes to reinvent the local economy.” Southwest Ohio is taking notice.

Editorial Notes: Megan Quinn Bachman, a Yellow Springs News reporter and an environmental educator, teaches a sustainable agriculture class at Antioch University Midwest in Yellow Springs. She can be reached at megan@ysnews.com.

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