A pilot program of the SE Ohio Foodbank & Kitchen, a division of Hocking, Athens, Perry Community Action (HAPCAP), in operation for nearly a year, is designed to support local farmers as well as feed families throughout southeast Ohio.
Asti Payne, development and community relations coordinator for the Foodbank, said the program, Local Food Connections, started after “a local restaurant meeting (last year)… We were trying to promote that our kitchen was available for rent,” for farmers interested in blast freezing their produce.”
Although supportive of the pitch, Payne recalled, farmers were not sure whether they’d have the time to take on the responsibility. So the SE Ohio Foodbank & Kitchen took the reins.
Representatives of the Foodbank began purchasing produce from the Chesterhill Produce Auction in Morgan County, using money from a $3,860 grant from the Rocky Community Improvement Fund. They've attended the auction four or five times in the past year in different growing seasons. The kitchen is then used to wash, prep and blast-freeze the produce. It’s then sealed away in Reduced Oxygen Packaging at its freshest, shortly after the auction, Food Services Coordinator Sam Gress explained.
The Foodbank purchased produce from a total of 28 growers and farmers throughout southeast Ohio, Payne said.
The SE Ohio Foodbank & Kitchen is now selling the produce to restaurants and individuals interested in supporting local farmers and consuming locally grown, out-of-season produce year-round. The profit – the produce is sold slightly marked up from what the Food Bank and Kitchen paid for it — goes to support the senior nutrition and child nutrition programs that the division operates. Those programs include Meals on Wheels, Senior Congregate Dining Sites and the Summer Feeding Program, offering free lunches for kids.
After spending the year buying and freezing the produce, the SE Ohio Foodbank & Kitchen has begun marketing the program to local restaurants, and the first buyer to participate and have the product available to the public is the West End Cider House, located on West Washington Street in Athens. Owner and business manager Deanna Schwartz said that despite being the first buyer, the buying process was “super easy,” and “it’s been a pleasure working with them.”
She said fruited cider sells well, but acknowledged that “it’s hard to stick to our mission in the wintertime because it’s harder to get local fruit.” That’s why she appreciates the opportunity to purchase a total of 45 pounds of locally grown strawberries even though they are out of season now. The strawberries have been used to kindle a strawberry cider, which has been on tap since New Year’s Eve. Schwartz said it’s been a hit.
She added that recently noticed a flier announcing that blackberries were available, and the wheels in her head began to turn in the direction of another fruited cider. Unfortunately, the Foodbank & Kitchen had sold out of blackberries by the time Schwartz called. She plans to continue buying produce from the program, and is “excited to have access to local fruit all year-round.”