Earlier this year, Travis Lesser was invited to Leadership Centre County’s economy day to pitch an idea to the group. He and three other entrepreneurs would present ideas for fictional startups, and the class would go through a mock process of getting the ball rolling. Except Lesser’s idea wasn’t a fiction.
“The idea of a food hub has been floating around the area for awhile,” he says. “The CBICC was almost using (Leadership Centre County) to see what the reaction was, and the reaction was very positive.”
While Appalachian Food Works still isn’t quite a reality, it’s well on its way. Lesser has formed a nonprofit, applied for grants and taken meetings with just about anyone who will talk to him, including myself. We sat down last week to talk about what a food hub looks like in Central Pennsylvania and what it means for local food consumers.
Why do we need a food hub in Central PA?
That was something that I noticed when I moved here from St. Mary’s — we’re surrounded by farmland but we’re not eating the food that’s grown and raised around us. We grow enough food here to feed the entire population of Centre County but only 1 percent of that food gets consumed here.
I see this disconnect not only here in Centre County but being from St. Mary’s, the only place to get groceries there are the Walmart and the Save-A-Lot.
Look at a place like Centre Hall. If they want to go grocery shopping, they have to go to the Weis on Zion Road or Burkholder’s in Millheim, and hopefully it’s not Sunday because then that’s not open, or they have to go all the way into State College.
What is a food hub?
There is no all-encompassing definition of food hub. The saying goes, ‘Once you’ve seen one food hub, you’ve seen one food hub.’
How I picture a food hub is a source not only for aggregation, storage and distribution of locally grown and raised food but also to be an informational resource and a headquarters for food entrepreneurs.
How would you help food entrepreneurs?
We’ve applied for a state food incubator grant. So if your next Bob Ricketts (of Fasta Ravioli & Co.) wants to come in and make pasta, or if your next Joan Karp (of Mount NitaNee Kombucha) wants to start making kombucha, if they want to come in and start making small batches and running recipes and getting this out there, we want to be able to be that source for them.
It should be a place for that education component as well as connecting the two dots of people who want local food and people who are growing and raising it.
What are the first steps for Appalachian Food Works?
We’re starting this out as bare bones as possible. Because there’s a market and supply and there’s less seasonality for beef, we’re going to start out distributing beef. We’ll be buying from Rising Spring to start, and we’re open to other sources. We’ll be just dealing with restaurants that want to buy locally sourced beef. We’re going to be delivering it in our own personal vehicles with cooler bags. And then we’ll be looking to incrementally build out to more local markets. We found a poultry processor that also does rabbits in Huntingdon County. There’s a market for locally sourced chicken. There are farmers who want to get into farming chickens.
What else would AFW distribute?
We’d like to get in to produce at some point as well. Produce is tough because we have such a short growing season here. But there are crops that can be grown for the majority of the year, like root crops and things like that, or crops that can be effectively frozen. Since the beginning I’ve been envisioning a line of private label frozen vegetables that could conceivably be fresher than whatever’s in the produce aisle (at the grocery store). We could also do a private label for dairy; we just need to locate the markets for that.
What are some of the education hurdles you see going forward?
One thing we need to help people understand is that if we sit down at a table and all four of us order a 12-ounce tenderloin, it might be four different shaped steaks, even though they’re all 12 ounces. This is something the grocery industry did — there’s this perception that your food has to look perfect. I’m a gardener, and I’ve had some really delicious ugly food. Really misshapen tomatoes were some of the best tomatoes i’ve ever had. I’ve had some two-legged carrots that were awesome. We wants folks to understand that it’s still delicious and healthful food, and it’s probably in better shape than anything you’re buying at a big chain store.