By MICHAEL STRAND Salina Journal
Aug 5, 2015OK, so your gardening project was a success, and you’ve got 10 bushels of tomatoes sitting on the back porch.
Helping food producers answer questions like that — long before they’re in that predicament — was part of the goal of the “Healthy Foods Summit” on Tuesday at the Salina Bicentennial Center. The event was sponsored by the Live Well Saline County Coalition, a group working to improve health, wellness and access to healthy food.
Kicking off the event was Patty Cantrell, head of Regional Food Solutions, based in southwest Missouri.
Too many people live with what she called a “poverty of expectations” regarding food, thanks to tomatoes and other produce selected more for shelf-life and durability than flavor.
“We’ve come to accept as normal tomatoes that are too expensive and have no taste, and aisle after aisle of processed foods that we know aren’t good for us,” Cantrell said.
Part of the reason for that is global trade, driven by the economics of comparative advantage. When Cantrell began working on a project in Michigan to get locally grown food into school lunch programs, “there were apple orchards, literally, across the street from schools,” she said.
The locally grown apples tasted better, Cantrell said, but the same climate that gave them that better taste also meant they often had blemishes on the surface. So the local apples were sent to processing plants to be made into juice or pie filling, while unblemished apples from Washington went into the school cafeterias.
Yet when the local apples finally got into schools, kids started eating a lot more of them — five times as many, Cantrell said.
Distribution takes planning
In the past few decades, Cantrell said, local distribution systems have broken down, with trucks full of food now driving right through small towns that used to have their own grocery stores.
And while farmers markets have grown in popularity, that’s just one part of building a locally based food system.
Building wholesale systems requires a lot more planning and logistics, in what Cantrell called “Silicon Valley meets Organic Valley.”
One example she cited is Good Natured Family Farms, which started in 1997 with a farmer who had a “bumper crop” of tomatoes and talked a local grocery store into selling them.
Since then, the business has grown to several farms supplying the Ball’s and Hen House grocery chains in the Kansas City area, taking advantage of their warehouse and distribution system.
A similar system, called the High Plains Food Cooperative, has been established in northwest Kansas to gather and ship food from local farms to markets in the Denver area, said Chris Sramek, a board member who helped found the organization.
The idea was borrowed from a similar organization in Oklahoma, said Sramek, who returned to his family’s Rawlins County farm in 2005 and became the county’s part-time economic development director.
After three years of organizing, the group shipped its first food in 2008, an order for just over $700 “when we had $4 gas.”
In 2008, the co-op had total sales of $11,000. It has grown to $300,000 in 2015 and now includes 19 producers whose products are picked up across northwest Kansas and southwest Nebraska and arrive in a Denver market by noon. Sramek said about 12 percent of what’s produced is sold in Kansas.
Customer surveys show people are more concerned with knowing where their food is grown than whether it’s organic, Sramek said.
The products include about 600 dozen eggs a week and dressed poultry. The co-op recently acquired a mobile poultry processing unit so growers can prepare birds for sale under sanitary conditions.
“If you can’t get it where you need to get it, it’s not much good,” Sramek said.
— Reporter Mike Strand can be reached at 822-1418 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.