Local food access in Indiana Uplands gets boost from conference, Regional Food Network

More than 100 residents from across the region joined the Indiana University Center for Rural Engagement and Sustainable Food Systems Science in Bedford to exchange ideas and bolster strategic efforts to increase local food access for Hoosiers at the first Indiana Uplands Winter Food Conference on Jan. 30.

Though Indiana ranks 10th among the largest agriculture-based economies in the U.S., 90 percent of the food Hoosiers consume is imported into state.

IU's Center for Rural Engagement and Sustainable Food Systems Science hosted the first Indiana Uplands Winter Food Conference on Jan. 30 in Bedford, Indiana. Photos by Jeni Waters, IU Center for Rural Engagement

"If we could increase (local food consumption) by 10 percent, the economic and community impact could be substantial," Rhonda Phillips, dean of the Honors College and professor in the Agricultural Economics Department at Purdue University, said as she moderated a panel discussion with local food value chain coordinators from around the region. A value chain network is composed of people who support local food value chains as well as food safety, regulation and technical assistance and training that local producers and buyers may need.

"Think of value chain as 'value added,' which in both community and economic terms can have huge impacts for all involved," Phillips said.

The Center for Rural Engagement and Sustainable Food Systems Science have collaborated with communities across the region and experts across the Midwest to examine activities and barriers that affect local food access. As part of this effort, the center and Sustainable Food Systems Science hosted 12 community listening sessions and produced the Local Food, Local Good Report on the region's current local food landscape.

"In each meeting we learned about the unique community food system and many of the assets already in place," said Jodee Ellett, who oversees community engagement for IU Sustainable Food Systems Science. "People shared their food values and their vision, and they discussed leadership and resources ready to make change. This report compiles much of what we learned, and adds discussion about what we can do as a region that might impact more farmers and more communities in the Indiana Uplands."

For many local producers, aggregation is key to connecting to major buyers.

"My perception was that price was going to be the hardest factor," said Debbie Turner, general manager of Lost River Market and Deli, "but it is having enough produce to sell that is the issue."

Fischer Farms, a Dubois County-based beef farm that now helps connect other producers across the state with businesses and institutional buyers, including Indiana University.

"What I learned is how easy it is to not buy local food," said Joseph Fischer, a fifth-generation steward of Fischer Farms who focuses on sales and customer management. From distributor kickbacks to quick turnaround times, Fischer said local food producers are at a disadvantage against larger producers.

Fischer is working to remove those barriers by combining products from other local farms with their own shipments and connecting producers with buyers. Fischer said much of this effort is connecting the dots, and that it's a business based on relationships.

In an effort to bolster the local food value chain, and with support from the Center for Rural Engagement and Sustainable Food Systems Science, counties across the Indiana Uplands are uniting to form a Regional Food Network. The network will launch at 1 p.m. March 19 at the First Presbyterian Church, 110 NE First St. in Paoli, Indiana.

Kyla Cox Deckard is director of communications for the IU Center for Rural Engagement.