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Culinary Connections: Bridging the Gap between Farmers and Chefs

June 26, 2024

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Culinary Connections: Bridging the Gap between Farmers and Chefs

Cultivating Community: The Roots of Local Food Connections

As I delve into the world of community-supported agriculture (CSA) and the ever-evolving relationship between farmers and chefs, I can’t help but feel a sense of excitement and optimism. It’s a story of dedication, innovation, and a shared passion for bringing the finest, freshest ingredients to the table.

Let me introduce you to Anna Haas, a driving force behind the What Chefs Want Local Food Connection program. With a knack for forging bonds and a bold vision for revolutionizing local food systems, Anna has played a pivotal role in shaping the direction of this transformative initiative.

As the program director for local foods, Anna is committed to empowering farmers and cultivating strong community ties. Her story begins around 2014 when Alice Chalmers, a passionate advocate for sustainable agriculture and local food, decided to launch the Ohio Valley Food Connection (now known as Local Food Connection) in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Overcoming Obstacles: The Birth of a Local Food Hub

Alice’s venture was the culmination of months of extensive outreach to farms and food businesses across the local foodshed, developing a business plan based on community needs. The goal was to establish a distribution system that could connect local farms capable of supplying fresh produce with buyers through existing food hub software platforms.

“This system operates by allowing farms to list their available produce still in the ground, which buyers can purchase directly through the software,” Anna explains. “Once an order is received, typically on Wednesday night, the farmer promptly harvests the requested items within 12 hours, ensuring they are fresh and packed specifically for the client, complete with personalized labels detailing the contents.”

However, the initial challenges were not to be underestimated. “Distribution for small food producers was a major hurdle in the Ohio Valley area of southwestern Ohio, Northern Kentucky, and southeastern Indiana, like it still is in many places,” Anna recalls. “While there was interest from both farmers and buyers, bridging the gap between them was tough without a reliable distribution system. Additionally, building relationships with restaurants and educating them about the benefits of local, just-harvested produce was crucial.”

Scaling Up: Partnerships and Expansion

Despite the setbacks, Local Food Connection saw rapid growth, enabling Anna to join the team. By 2016, the hub’s second summer, the operations were already expanding. They rented cooler storage spaces, collaborated with an incubator kitchen, and formed partnerships with other food hubs.

“Partnerships were instrumental in scaling our operations,” Anna emphasizes. “In 2017, we collaborated with the sustainability non-profit Green Umbrella and another food hub, securing USDA support via a local food promotion grant. This partnership aimed to utilize the infrastructure of both organizations to facilitate sales to institutions, and was especially crucial in launching our farm-to-school program.”

One such partnership proved to be a game-changer. Local Food Connection collaborated with the University of Kentucky, at a strategic moment amidst community demand for more Kentucky-grown produce, to help fulfill agreements in their dining contract. “We successfully collaborated with them to introduce a new local program featuring salad bars with Kentucky-grown produce from six small farms,” Anna explains. “UK committed to a year of twice-weekly seasonal purchases, and we worked with participating farms to tailor their production accordingly.”

Joining Forces: The What Chefs Want Advantage

In 2019, Local Food Connection became a part of What Chefs Want, a move that Anna believes turbo-charged their efforts. “Our commitment to supporting local farmers and providing fresh, nutritious produce never wavered,” she assures. “As we grew, we ensured that our systems prioritized transparency and sustainability. Educating buyers about seasonality, sourcing locally whenever possible, and advocating for fair prices for farmers remained at the core of our mission.”

By joining forces with What Chefs Want, Local Food Connection gained access to a wealth of resources, including a strong local program around What Chefs Want’s headquarters in Kentucky. “LFC plus WCW instantly expanded our team to include individuals with diverse backgrounds in food systems, distribution, and sales,” Anna proudly shares. “This allowed us to better manage logistics, coordinate with farmers and buyers, and ensure the quality and safety of our products.”

Additionally, the partnership enabled Local Food Connection to invest in technology to streamline operations and improve efficiency, a journey that continues as they grow into new markets and adapt to the ever-changing food system.

Empowering Farmers, Educating Buyers

At the heart of Local Food Connection’s mission lies a deep understanding of the local food landscape and a hands-on approach to bridging the gap between farmers and buyers. “Food hubs across the country follow a model that not only supports farmers and buyers but also fosters their own communities dedicated to the principles of local food,” Anna explains.

What sets Local Food Connection apart, now as part of What Chefs Want, is their commitment to maintaining the same values while leveraging the resources of a larger business. “We are listeners first – listeners to our producers and our customers,” Anna emphasizes. “We have really tried to create a system that works for those at both ends – local food production and buying – and in doing so, we educate along the way.”

This educational approach is crucial, as Anna explains, “We educate buyers on what they can buy that is a best fit for their type of enterprise, how to menu plan for seasonal local produce, and the stories behind their local food purchases. We educate producers on food safety certifications they need and how to know what to grow. We take a lot of the work off their plates when it comes to figuring out what a retailer wants versus a restaurant versus a school and how to get it to everyone.”

Embracing Flexibility and Opportunities

The partnership with What Chefs Want has also opened up new avenues for Local Food Connection to serve a diverse range of clients. “It’s not an all-or-nothing thing,” Anna explains. “You can mix in some local selections, supporting a small or organic farm. They can think of supporting a farm as simple as adding a couple of 15% local items or 25% local items. Or of course, chefs can go all in with local, and with our help, plan in advance to bring in specific local goods for their menu.”

One such example is Lobenstein Farm, a small-to-mid-sized farm located just across the border in Indiana. “They began with farmers markets but faced uncertainties in sales as farmers markets really rely on traffic to the market, weather, etc.,” Anna shares. “With our support, they added on to their six markets a week a more stable wholesale model. Initially, we purchased products on a just-in-time basis, but as they grew, we now buy from them by the case, integrating their products into our inventory system. This evolution has allowed them to scale up from being mainly a farmers market vendor to a reliable supplier for countless restaurants, retailers, schools, and universities – all done via us ordering from them and them dropping off two times a week.”

The Path Forward: Expanding Reach, Enriching Communities

As Local Food Connection continues to grow under the What Chefs Want umbrella, their commitment to their mission remains steadfast. “We’re committed to continuing our mission of connecting local farmers with buyers while promoting sustainability and transparency in the food system,” Anna affirms.

With each step forward, they are guided by the values that have defined them from the beginning – supporting local agriculture, providing access to fresh, nutritious food, and strengthening communities. And as they expand into new markets and forge more partnerships, their goal remains the same: to be the bridge that connects the vibrant world of local farming with the culinary artistry of chefs and food enthusiasts.

So, if you’re a chef or food lover looking to explore the world of local, seasonal, and sustainable ingredients, I encourage you to visit Thorn Apple CSA and discover the magic that can happen when farmers and chefs come together. The journey of Culinary Connections is one of passion, persistence, and a deep reverence for the land that nourishes us all.

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Thornapple CSA: A community-driven initiative championing sustainable agriculture. We connect members with fresh, organic produce, celebrating the bond between land and community.

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