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Howard food hub among farm-to-table initiatives

A new "food hub" in Howard County that promises to support local growers and increase the availability of local food is chief among a set of farm-to-table measures announced by County Executive Ken Ulman this week.

"This is about the way we deal with food policy on a broad scale," said Ulman Monday, Dec. 9 at a press conference held at Bridgeway Community Church in Columbia.

"The heritage of Howard County was growing produce to eat or selling it at the local market or store. Nationally, we have become a large corporation agricultural industry. But, people are attracted to, and excited about, locally grown (produce.) The more we can connect that, the better chance we have of continuing our heritage."

Also unveiled Monday was the hire of a full-time food policy director for the county and the creation of a 24-person Howard County Food Policy Task Force, which is first charged with will implementing the food hub.

Both the task force and the food hub are joint projects with the Horizon Foundation, a Columbia-based philanthropic organization that has targeted sugary drinks and advocated for healthy lifestyles.

So far, a total of $300,000 has been allocated to the initiative, $200,000 from the county and $100,000 from Horizon. American Communities Trust, a consultant hired to create the food hub, will receive $100,000, half from each group.

County officials said a location and timetable for when the food hub will open have not been determined.

The food hub will be a facility used to collect, store and distribute locally produced foods. It would include a commercial "incubator" kitchen, which can be utilized by local small food businesses as a community kitchen.

"A food hub is kind of an amorphous term," said Greg Heller, president and CEO of ACT.

Heller said food hubs are customized to the needs and character of the community, but generally it's a facility that supports the local food economy. Currently, ACT is working with Baltimore City to open a $16.3 million 3.5 acre food hub at a former pumping station in East Baltimore. Heller estimates the food hub in Howard County will be markedly different, stating the group will come up with "the best model that meets Howard County's needs."

Key among the hub's charges will be aggregating and distributing from local farms.

Heller said there a different models for collecting food, but that he believes a single aggregate who sells local produce from a variety of farms to both large- and small-scale local distributors works best.

"Small farmers don't have the ability to sell to large buyers because they don't have the quantity of product and they don't meet the price points," Heller said. "Part of this project will be aggregating and supporting the local farm community."

Additionally, the food hub will support local food banks, like Community Cupboard at Bridgeway, by allowing access to their facility and acting as a clearinghouse.

Ulman said: "We are the healthiest county in Maryland, but there are too many Howard Countians who do not have access to healthy foods."

According to a study published by Horizon, approximately 1 in 4 children in the county are obese or overweight. Additionally, 35 percent of county residents eat less than one serving of fruit per day, and 61 percent eat two or fewer servings of vegetables, which is below the recommended amounts.

"This is a place we can do better in the county," said Nikki Highsmith Vernick, president and CEO of Horizon.

To combat that the county will also launch a mobile market, which is intended to make fresh fruits and vegetables more widely available. Heller called the mobile market concept "a farmers market on wheels," which could be either a transient traditional market or a food truck offering local produce.

County officials said they hope the mobile market will be operational by May or June of next year.

The county has hired Kelly Dudeck, former executive director of the Maryland Agricultural Resource Council, to serve as the new food policy director. She will receive $78,000 as a contingent employee, meaning she receives no benefits, officials said.

The task force, which is scheduled to have its first meeting in January, will meet for a year and develop additional food policy recommendations for the county, according to county officials. Among the recommendations may be the creation of a full-time food policy commission, county officials said.

Additionally, the task force will take a look at the county's farmers markets. Two of the county's five farmers markets, the Thursday market at the East Columbia Library and the Saturday market at the Glenwood Library, will be discontinued next year.

Ulman touted the diversity and clout of the task force, which includes representatives from the Farmers Market Board, the Maryland Food Authority, Wegman's of Columbia, the director of the Howard County Department of Social Services, the executive director of Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship and others.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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