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Farm-to-table idea in Elkhart County involves use of jail kitchen

A group of Elkhart County leaders hope extra space in the jail kitchen can be used to help provide more fresh, local food for the county.

Posted on Aug. 22, 2014 at 5:00 a.m.

An effort to bring more locally grown food to local tables year-round is gathering momentum and could receive a boost from jail inmates.

While stressing the idea is just in its infancy, Elkhart County Commissioner and farmer Mike Yoder, Sheriff Brad Rogers, Church Community Services executive director Rod Roberson and Middlebury Community Schools personnel director Delores Merrick say they have met recently to discuss the concept and are eager to pursue it further.

Each of the individuals likes the idea for their own reasons.

In a pilot project that could begin next year, fruits and vegetables grown in the area would be processed by Elkhart County Jail inmates in the facility’s large commercial-grade kitchen, which is underutilized because the facility was built to accommodate a much larger jail population than what currently exists. Inmates would process and package the produce, and it would be frozen at the jail until people in the community are ready to eat it.

Produce would be flash-frozen, a process that uses liquid nitrogen and preserves the cell structure and nutritional value of the food during freezing, while alleviating concerns of pathogen growth that can result from canning. Yoder said the ultimate goal is to buy a mobile flash-freezing unit, which can cost up to $70,000 and could perhaps be funded with tax-increment financing district revenue. But before that step, the jail’s conventional freezers would be used as the rest of the program kinks are worked out.

Rogers said in the pilot project, inmates might start learning how to process the food by practicing on some fresh green beans acquired from a wholesaler.

"We need to have enough capacity to justify buying that kind of equipment," Yoder said. "There are a lot of logistics we need to get figured out before we get to the flash freezer and that’s what we want to do with the pilot project next year."

Yoder said a viable local farm-to-table system with flash freezing would expand the market for local farmers throughout the year and eliminate the waste that occurs with surplus harvest.

Giving back

For his part, Rogers thinks he’ll have no problem finding inmates willing to do the work. He can’t pay them cash, but he can shave a little time from their sentences and give them some job skills that could help them find employment after they’re released.

"We have a correctional facility full of people who have taken from the community,” Rogers said. “With this, they can give back to the community.”

The sheriff said the workers would be carefully selected, as kitchen inmate jobs are now, from inmates who’ve committed “low-level” crimes and aren’t escape risks.

"They’re not hazards to the food workers that are in there now," Rogers said. "People, when you get them off drugs and alcohol, are good workers."

Rogers said the jail kitchen freezers must run anyway, so there would be no new cost to taxpayers.

"I can foresee that we can do this without any tax dollars being spent,” he said, “beyond what’s already being spent for normal operations.”

Rogers said he realizes that some in the community might not like the idea of eating food that’s been prepared by convicts. In 2000, before he became sheriff, the Meals on Wheels program stopped having the jail kitchen prepare its meals because subscriptions to the program were declining amid those concerns, Rogers said.

"I would certainly eat it, I wouldn’t have any problem, but that’s a marketing issue they’ll have to deal with," Rogers said.

But Merrick, the Middlebury Community Schools personnel director, said the inmates’ involvement wouldn’t bother her. Merrick wants to get locally grown fruits and vegetables into the corporation’s cafeterias and sees this as a potential way to do that.

Last year, she wrote for a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture that would have provided $36,000 to develop a school garden and relationships with area farmers to supply fresh produce. She didn’t win the grant but remains interested in her initial goal, and she hopes the corporation could start buying locally grown food for the 2015-2016 school year.

Aside from having more access to fresh produce, Merrick likes the educational component.

"We border Michigan, the LaGrange County line, Goshen and Concord schools,” she said. “Even though we’re rural, a lot of kids don’t know where their food comes from. We’re not an inner city school where kids don’t know that or appreciate it. Instead of always relying on other people, you can produce your own food.”

Merrick said using inmate labor could be a “win-win situation.”

"There are people in the justice system who maybe could use some job skills," she said, "and we’ve eliminated the cost and additional time that our staff would have to do get the fresh food. I would assume the sheriff would carefully screen the people."

Roberson, at CCS, called the concept "tremendous." He said he would like to explore the idea of having the inmates process and flash-freeze food grown in his nonprofit’s Seed to Feed gardens, food that is now given away to clients at area food pantries and served at hot-meal sites.

"What makes it very interesting is what they have proposed is utilizing space that’s laying dormant and using it to produce food where it’s needed most,” Roberson said. “It’s exciting to think about being able to provide fresh vegetables and produce during the winter time. It’s very attractive to us a food bank.”

The “it” thing

The concept of collecting produce from area farms at a central location and then delivering it to customers, called “food hubs,” was developed years ago on the East and West coasts, but has been late coming to Indiana and the Midwest, said Michael Morrow, market coordinator for Hoosier Harvest Market in Greenfield. His program began in 2012 with a feasibility study funded by a USDA grant.

By May 2013, the idea became a reality. Every Thursday, Morrow and a group of volunteers aggregate orders that individuals place on a website, and deliver them to pick-up locations at 13 area businesses in a three-county area. These partnering sites include oil-change businesses, a tire shop, two nurseries, a bread store, a hospital and two fire stations.

So far, about 150 households place weekly orders, up from 15 households in the first week. Right now, the food is being staged and sorted at the Hancock County Purdue Extension office in Greenfield, but Morrow said the program will eventually need its own facility. It plans to launch a marketing blitz and buy two refrigerated trucks next month.

Such food hubs have operated for years on the East and West coasts, and in a few pockets of the Midwest, but they are just entering the mainstream consciousness in this part of the country.

"Now it’s more the ’it’ thing to do," Morrow said, "but it’s the responsible thing to do, when you talk about transportation costs and all the other things that go into food distribution.“

Hoosier Harvest Market is owned collectively by a group of 42 local small and mid-sized farms. Morrow wants to next crack the institutional consumer market, such as restaurants, schools and hospitals, but his current producers don’t yet have the labor to supply that much volume.

Morrow said it’s a ”chicken-and-egg“ conundrum. Before hiring more workers to harvest larger volumes of produce, producers want guarantees from the institutional customers that they’ll buy it, while the institutions want assurance that the product will be available before they agree to buy. But Morrow said he’s confident both sides will find a way to resolve the impasse because institutions genuinely want to buy locally produced food.

Yoder said the next step is gauge interest from local farmers. The idea sprang from a Purdue University-led group called the Elkhart County Foodshed Initiative, an ad-hoc committee that held its third meeting on Thursday, Aug. 21 at the Goshen Chamber of Commerce. The group has commissioned a Minneapolis-based consultant to gather statistics on how much food is grown and produced in the region that includes Elkhart, Kosciusko, LaGrange, Marshall, Noble and St. Joseph counties in Indiana, and Cass and St. Joseph counties in Michigan.

The study, funded by the Goshen Hospital Health Care Foundation, will shed more light on the potential size of the locally grown food market.

While he wants to help farmers, Yoder said he also has a grander, more ambitious objective. He hopes the initiative could result in more people eating healthy.

"Multiple generations are used to eating processed food, ready-to-eat and eating out,” he said. “The obesity rates tell you that the best foods are not being purchased at home. We have to train people to work in the kitchen again.”


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