Local food takes center stage at forum

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FORT WAYNE — Growers, restaurateurs, local food advocates and more gathered to discuss successes and challenges at the fifth annual Local Food Forum Monday at Purdue Fort Wayne.

The event originally began as an education local food summit out of the Allen County Purdue Extension, said Janet Katz, director of the Northeast Indiana Local Food Network, which began organizing the event last year.

“The goal of the event is to grow and celebrate our local food community,” Katz wrote in an email. “We want to encourage more farmers, producers, processors, distributors, marketers, chefs, brewers and of course eaters to participate in our local food economy.”

The Local Food Network was launched in 2017 by a steering committee tasked by the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership “with implementing an ambitious action plan for strengthening local food network across Northeast Indiana,” Katz wrote.

The group works to promote the demand and support the supply of local food grown and consumed in northeast Indiana, Katz wrote.

Supply and demand was a big topic of conversation at the forum. While emphasizing that Indiana is the 10th largest food producer in the country, speakers also shared that 90 percent of the state’s food is imported.

Speakers and guests alike also shared that some of their major challenges involved distribution, processing and getting the right products to the right customers in the right amount of time.

During one panel discussion, CultivationLab owner and facilitator Stephanie Henry pointed out that many “farmers are doing more than farming” to include distribution, retail, composting and more.

“We have a cluster of businesses who are trying to do all these things themselves,” Henry said.

Philippe Carroll of Young Urban Homesteaders said this was often out of necessity, as there are currently few distributors interested in the small scale his organization works on.

He and others also emphasized the need for producers to work together, perhaps through an intermediary, so farmers and those who create food from those products can meet their needs as well.

The event included booths of local growers as well as food researchers, community organizations and others looking to help bridge the gaps between producers and consumers.

Keynote speaker Debra Tropp, former deputy director of local food research and development for USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, spoke about the benefits of a more direct supply chain to both consumers and producers, as well as farmers could best market their products to meet the changing demands of consumers.

“There is a lot of untapped demand,” Tropp said. “People want health and convenience. How do we provide it?”

Also speaking were Jeff and Zach Hawkins of Hawkins Family Farm near North Manchester, who also spoke about their challenges to meet their goals for their family farm as well as the desires of consumers.

“We’re making a commitment to our (community supported agriculture) members and they’re making a commitment to us,” Zach Hawkins said.

There were also several “lightning talks,” where organizations and businesses spoke for three minutes or less about their plans with the hope of connecting with others interested in what they had to offer.

This year’s event also included a social hour, with local producers and restaurants sharing their goods with consumers, and a local food after party with demonstrations and food sampling.

The Local Food Network also announced that $5 from each ticket sold went to start a scholarship fund to help with various education expenses for those involved in the local food supply chain.

“It’s about the people, it’s about those relationships,” Katz told the audience.