Exploring local and ethically-sourced food with Heartland Communities

Local food and green collar industries have seen renewed interest in recent years. Living Fort Wayne recently caught up with Heartland Communities’ Jain Young and Rowan Greene to discuss the mission of Heartland Communities and their vision for the future.

LFW – How does Heartland Communities plan to help facilitate the emergence of “green collar industries”?

Heartland Communities – We hear about a “triple bottom line” these days – people – planet – profit or the 3 p’s of sustainability. At Heartland Communities, we have held those values as our mission since before the phrase was coined and we called it economic, environmental and cultural sustainability. As a community economic development organization, we are focused on creating opportunities to put those values into action in business, jobs, and entrepreneurship. To take it a step further, Heartland is organized to help create cooperative and worker-owned enterprises.

Heartland’s current focus is bringing green infrastructure to the food industry with Plowshares Local Food System Project, which began in 2014 with a USDA grant through the Local Food Promotion Program for research and planning. Plowshares works with intention and organizing to re-establish local food system infrastructure, which changed over the last 50+ years from local to global. Now, four years into the project, we are launching a local food distribution business called Plowshares Food Hub. It will create efficiencies for local farms and business while making locally grown and processed food more accessible. The Sustainable Indiana 2016 initiative gave Heartland a “Green Light Award” for Plowshares.

As we create a local food system, food production is a green collar industry when farmers use regenerative methods that require less water and fuel, build our soil, and protect pollinators. As food moves from farms through the value chain to the consumer, food jobs become “green” when the transportation miles are reduced, so locally produced food is more green than the same food that rides in a truck from California or Brazil. In Indiana, the average meal travels 1,500 miles while we import 90 percent of our food from out of state. So you might think of a green collar industry as a solar panel manufacturing plant but sometimes it is doing the things we have always done but finding a way to be good to the planet and value your people with good jobs, while being successful financially.

Another Green Light Award was given to an organization Heartland incubated as fiscal agent and through organizational development over a period of seven years. The nonprofit Save Maumee Grassroots Organization has become a green collar industry in watershed management and jobs have been created with nearly $200,000 in grants from US Forest Service since 2014. Save Maumee is now in its third Riparian Buffer Initiative project, stabilizing degraded stream banks along the Maumee River and its tributary streams by planting thousands of trees and plants. This work will help stop those awful algal blooms that shut down the drinking water plant in Toledo in the last few years, and cause dead zones in Lake Erie. Green jobs are created and supported not only directly through implementation of watershed management practices, but also for nursery workers growing the trees, site plans created by landscape engineers, sign makers, equipment rentals and so on.

Going forward, Heartland will continue to foster green collar industries in the food sector and seek opportunities to advocate for local production and consumption of basic needs. If we are going to feed ourselves in Northeast Indiana, we will need many more skilled farm workers to grow food, so we have been offering training opportunities for produce farmers. In 2015 and 2018, Heartland was part of a grant funded initiative to bring a top notch trainer to come and teach farmers about scaling up to wholesale production in fruit and vegetable farming. We have thousands of acres in production growing corn and soybeans, which are not people food. Some farms need to convert to specialty crops, and we need new farms. The average farmer is nearing retirement, and younger generations are not taking over family farms because they can make a better living in manufacturing. There are articles coming out all the time about new food and farm trends and how fruit and vegetable farms are more profitable than traditional row crop farms of the old ‘green revolution’ and huge corporate farms growing commodities, which rely on subsidies. See NYT article at the link here (Article 1) (Article 2)

LFW – Could you also give examples of green collar initiatives in other cities you would like to see develop here in northeast Indiana?

Heartland – The article in the link above from Yes! magazine describes several incubator farms all over the US that could be duplicated in Indiana. Food Hub distribution companies are also already pioneering best practices in distribution channels and local food processing. Michigan is a good role model with their Michigan Good Food Charter for Statewide policy guides and Michigan Good Food Fund.

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Housing development is also near and dear to Heartland Communities, especially cooperative housing. In the last decade, cutting-edge housing developments have been built around small farms instead of golf courses. We think that there are exciting opportunities in urban agriculture that can revitalize parts of inner city Fort Wayne.

A Heartland member and project manager of Plowshares went with Purdue Extension to Wisconsin in 2016 for a week-long tour of small specialty farms practicing regenerative agriculture, incubator farms, urban farms and community gardens, farm-to-table restaurants, and supporting organizations like public markets and universities. Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Vermont, and Pennsylvania are years, maybe decades ahead of Indiana in creating a thriving food culture and economy and have many examples of great initiatives.

Could you explain the plowshares project?

Heartland – The project is connecting stakeholders in a community-wide collaboration to create markets and infrastructure for access to locally produced food. Local food has been trending for several years and the demand is expected to grow. The average consumer has to go out of the way to find a good source, and only dedicated consumers will go to a farmer’s market. For wholesale buyers, it is also dedicated “farm- to-table” restaurants and specialty stores that are willing to take the time to develop relationships with farmers and receive deliveries from each of them.

The only grocery store in Fort Wayne willing to go the extra mile is 3 Rivers Food Co-op Natural Grocery & Deli, which made $200,000 in purchases from local producers in 2016. Average consumers and wholesale buyers that are not willing to go to that much extra hassle are untapped markets for local food. Plowshares is a strategy to make the local choice an easy choice.

For making the connections needed for a local integrated food system to thrive, it will consist of an online ordering platform as well as a website where producers can have a profile to tell their story. Plowshares Food Hub offers efficiencies for farmers and buyers as a one-stop-shop where they can make a weekly order with one delivery and one payment, while buying from multiple local farms and processors.

The Plowshares Project takes a larger systems approach as well and looks at the macro level for gap analysis. We will need more farm workers that make food for people rather than corn and soybeans, which are not people food. Recently, Ivy Tech has built a greenhouse to educate four-season growers and both Huntington University and University of Saint Francis are offering programs in local food. Plowshares Project provides training for workers so when farmers and restaurants need extra hands they can find a pool of skilled workers.

According to the UDSA, “A Food hub is a business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail, and institutional demand.”

LFW – What does your organization need from the community for the plowshares project to be successful?

Heartland – Rather than thinking of a supply chain, the local food system keeps a priority of ethics in a Food Value Chain, in which businesses intentionally structure operations to produce both financial success and a social benefit. Stakeholders all along the chain, from the farmer to the consumer, all share a mission and operational values to achieve intended results. The shared mission values include farm viability, farmland preservation, healthy food access, and sustainable production methods. Shared operational values include accountability, long-term commitment, open and ongoing communication, and transparency.

For the consumer, those values and commitments mean buying from local farmers consistently, allowing the notions of quality to evolve from standard size, shape, color and price expectations. Even for consumers with less means, it could be translated to smaller portions of higher quality animal proteins to make them affordable. It could mean going out of your way to support local food until the infrastructure is in place to be more convenient.

For wholesale buyers such as institutional food service, retail grocers and restaurants, a commitment to local means flexibility in purchasing while the local supply and reliability is built up over a period of years. It means creating a seasonal menu to feature produce as the peak season for asparagus and lettuce gives way to hardier greens and then winter squash and root vegetables. Buying agreements facilitate producer confidence and begin the cycle of planning and preparation necessary to increase supply.

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For farmers, it means commitment to produce safe, quality food with transparency on production methods and communication with buyers. Communication is also needed for producers and buyers to say what is needed to complete buying agreements successfully. Where producer and buyer needs are flexible, they can work out the best strategy for all.

For community and economic development stakeholders and local government, it means treating local food distribution infrastructure as a public good, even a public utility, with investment dollars and policies that enable, rather than act as barriers to local food access and local food entrepreneurship. For investors, it means supportive terms during start-up phase and flexible return strategies.

Heartland Communities is seeking passionate people who want to be involved in the Plowshares Project in many capacities. Tasks ahead range from public speaking to creating design and strategy of economic infrastructure and implementing programs. If this emerging economy gives you goosebumps, send an email to plowshares.localfoodhub@yahoo.com.

LFW – Could you explain the Local Indiana Food Slips program?

Heartland – Local Indiana Food Slips, or LIFS., pronounced leefs is a stimulus program presented by the nonprofit Heartland Communities Inc. in the form of a local currency that will serve to increase economic activity and healthy food access. Implemented through food distribution channels of Plowshares Food Hub, L.I.F.S. will give local producers, consumers and entrepreneurs the power to decide what and who gives money value. This hard local currency makes it easier to prevent capital leakage and also brings a focus to how we spend money and who that money ultimately benefits. Participation and the flow of commerce will be monitored through an app, in which people make a profile registering and placing them within the economic system. This will be a way to ensure traceability, transparency, and cultivate incentive to spend.

Entrance into the local system requires first consenting to participating as one of the five roles within the economic model, committing to uphold the ethics of the value chain and committing to not commit fraud. The roles are producer, farm volunteer, entrepreneur, consumer and stimulator. The last one needs more description: a stimulator is a small scale investor that helps fund individual farms and entrepreneurs to produce at scale and receives their return on investment in LIFS.

Local Indiana Food Slops is a stimulus program intended to help jumpstart a local food economy. So the first step in a successful LIFS program is for the community to make a commitment as consumers to local food and local commerce in general. The second step is to agree to a deeper engagement in the local economy by materially participating in the exchange of goods and services by agreeing to incentivize volunteer time for food slips, and investing in the effort to scale up production as a Stimulator.

LFW – Could you explain the Northeast Indiana Time Exchange program?

Heartland – A Time Bank is a way that people can trade favors similar to bartering for services. Where Food Slips can be used to trade for physical goods that vary in value, a time exchange is for services only. In this system, everyone’s hour is considered to be of equal value, and since the IRS measures value in dollars, not time, there is no way for this to be taxed. It is difficult to find direct trades, so there is a system that allows participants to ‘bank’ their time served, and withdraw time from anyone in the system. For example, if I am skilled to cut hair and I need my bicycle fixed, I don’t have to find a bike mechanic who needs her hair cut. I can cut hair for anyone in the system and my hour of service is deposited in the time bank. Then I can find a bicycle mechanic in the system and withdraw my hour to have my bike fixed.

People exchange favors all the time informally, and those exchanges form the understructure of community. You could even say that being in community is not about who lives next door, but who relies on one another. There is a concept called the core economy that describes all the labor that is not counted as paid work, like raising children, caring for elder family members, volunteering, and so forth that is not measured in traditional economic values like GDP, GNP, net national income, labor share, or productivity. Yet a society cannot function without this work, and more of it has become commoditized as family members spend more time making a living, and out of reach for more families as the middle class diminishes.
In Indiana, 40% of households struggle to pay basic bills, and when debt is added in, it could be more than half (Source).

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A time exchange system could get those households more of what they need, and allow a higher quality of life for all Northeast Indianan citizens. We often hear people lament that a sense of community is not felt as it was in a simpler time that older people remember with nostalgia. A time exchange provides a platform to reestablish those connections among people that are the building blocks of community.

LFW – Do you see this programming as an effective way to attract or retain people in northeast Indiana?

Heartland – Through the Plowshares Project, Heartland Communities participated in a steering committee to direct the priorities in a Strategic Plan for the local food industrial cluster that was conducted by Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership and initiated by Wells County Economic Development Corporation in 2015-16. The Partnership holds a priority of developing Quality of Place initiatives as part of the Road to One Million strategy to attract and retain people to the area. A thriving food culture is a crucially important quality of place factor that many competing regions already embrace, and the Partnership recognizes that. Heartland representative worked with LEDOs, Extension Educators, farmers, restaurateurs, and other local food advocates on the steering committee to implement the Strategic Plan’s top priority: to create strong leadership in moving the industry forward through a new nonprofit organization, the Northeast Indiana Local Food Network. The second top priority of the Strategic Plan is to foster the creation of local food distribution infrastructure through Plowshares Food Hub.

Does Heartland Communities have any ideas for addressing “food deserts” through green collar industries, cooperatives or other programming?

The problem of food deserts in Fort Wayne has become a priority issue for Fort Wayne community development officials, nonprofit organizations, health advocates and hospitals. Programs to address the issues have been tried from community gardens to cooking classes, with increasing impact. Many of the stakeholders that are in partnership in the Plowshares Project are doing important work to address food deserts and Plowshares Food Hub will be part of those efforts. Parkview Regional Medical Center has built a greenhouse for four-season production of fresh vegetables and aspires to create a “Veggie Rx” program that may be partially implemented through the Food Hub.

During the summer of 2017 a pilot program was conducted on behalf of the Food Hub by an independent entrepreneur to offer a weekly bag of seasonal produce for a flat rate of $25, with a $5 charge delivered to the buyer’s doorstep. It was successful, with 100 bags delivered at the peak of the summer produce season. This is one way food deserts can be served through Plowshares Food Hub.

There are many other ideas for getting food into the hands and bellies of people in low-income neighborhoods, like cooperative community cafeterias, mobile markets, and cooperative grocery stores. We are actively participating on an Urban Agriculture Policy Task Force to remove zoning barriers and streamline special use permitting for creating farms in neighborhoods that could provide green collar entrepreneurship as well as food that couldn’t be more local.

LFW – Where do you see this organization in the future?

Heartland – Heartland Communities was founded in part to emulate the entrepreneurial division of a world-class cooperative economic system in Spain called Mondragon Cooperatives. Mondragon began in the 1940s after their Civil War and took the town from 50% unemployment to a system of worker-owned businesses employing 200,000 and supporting many more in the 1980s. They still exist, and repeatedly hold records for highest productivity in the EU. The Entrepreneurial Division founder comes to speak in the US through their American presence called One Worker One Vote, often at symposiums hosted by Cincinnati Union Coop Initiative. CUCI has incubated and launched several co-ops. The first one was a Food Hub and Farm, and their portfolio also includes an energy efficiency contractor, two grocery stores in food desert areas, and more than a dozen co-ops that are in process of emerging.

More information

Please email Heartland Communities at plowshares.localfoodhub@yahoo.com.

Living Fort Wayne Admin

Author: Living Fort Wayne Admin

Highlighting everything that is great about living, working and playing in Fort Wayne, Indiana!

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