As great as it is to eat local, in most of the United States there are certain months of the year when it is difficult, if not impossible, to eat local food fresh from the field. Thankfully, a new crop of local food hub entrepreneurs is thinking beyond the growing season by freezing fresh summer produce to sell locally in the winter.
According to a 2010 report by the Institute of Food Research, fresh vegetables can lose up to 45 percent of their nutrients by the time they reach consumers. However, vegetables frozen immediately after picking retain more nutrients than vegetables that took days or weeks to travel from farm to table. So instead of buying tomatoes from South America to make a sauce in January, a bag of frozen tomatoes from a local farm is nutritionally superior and tastes as fresh as the day they were picked.
One of the companies that will start freezing local tomatoes this year is Maine Harvest Company (MHC), a new food aggregation and light processing facility for Maine-grown produce. According to the Portland Press Herald, MHC will begin this year with a 12,000-square-foot facility housed in an empty Navy commissary. Kathy Karonis of Fairwinds Farm told the Press Herald that she anticipates sending 10,000 pounds of plum tomatoes to MHC this year. MHC hopes to process 500,000 pounds of produce in their first year and grow to 1.3 million pounds by year three.
Part of the growth potential for food processing hubs like MHC is the ability to market blemished produce that would otherwise end up wasted or in compost to budget-conscious institutions like schools and hospitals. After all, a blemished frozen strawberry can still be used in a smoothie. This opens new markets for farmers, decreases food waste, and brings the price of food down for institutions. According to Food Tank, a food think tank, “Freezing produce in school kitchen facilities, for example, instead of buying fresh produce in the winter can save schools as much as 50 percent; however, not all schools have the proper equipment or enough staff to make this cost effective.” That’s where food processing centers and food hubs come in, offering local fresh-frozen produce that is in many cases cheaper than the fresh produce schools could buy in the winter.
One Michigan business takes a slightly different approach to local food processing. Locavorious is a wintertime CSA serving the Ann Arbor area. Locavorious partnered with several small farms in the area to offer frozen produce subscriptions that are picked up just like a regular CSA during winter months at designated locations. They process and freeze the farmers’ freshly picked produce at peak harvest and store it for winter. In addition to their CSA, Locavorious products are sold at Whole Foods in Ann Arbor. By growing, processing, and selling locally, food hubs like Locavorious decrease food miles.
In New York state, Farm to Table Co-Packers has taken over 29,000 square feet of unused kitchen space in TechCity, the former IBM-Kingston facility. They processed and froze over 800,000 pounds of produce last year and worked with over 60 farms. The business helps farmers reduce their costs for packing and distribution, and much like the other food hubs mentioned, opens new markets for farms like schools, markets, and other institutions. Farm to Table Co-Packers were able to expand their business with the help of a $775,000 grant from the Empire State Development Corporation and the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.
Husk in Indiana is a much smaller food-processing facility — less than 5,000 feet and working with just three farms — but they’ve got big ideas about helping Indiana’s farmers feed their local communities. Part of Husk’s mission is to bring income opportunity back to rural communities by growing, harvesting, processing, and selling their frozen sweet corn locally, and they think the demand is there. “The consumer demand for locally-grown food and local, independent grocers and knowing who you’re doing business with – no longer walking into big box stores – is not a trend that’s going away,” Nick Carter, co-founder and president of Husk, told WISH, an Indiana television station.
These food hub entrepreneurs are filling a gap in the system and helping to strengthen local food systems. With more consumers, schools, and institutions enthusiastically embracing the financial and nutritional benefits of local food, the future looks bright for local food hubs and local food processors. These new businesses create local jobs, reduce food waste and food miles, and support local farmers and the food security of the community at large.
One of Sustainable America’s goals is to triple local food production by 2035, and developing more sustainable methods for processing and selling food locally is a big step in that direction. We encourage you to freeze your own fresh fruits and vegetables to prepare for winter, but also look for fresh-frozen local produce at your grocery store. You might be surprised at what you find!