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BMAC and regional growers cook up plans for food hub

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Food bank

Blue Mountain Action Council’s food bank could play a key role in a regional food hub.

The Blue Mountain Action Council Food Bank and a cluster of regional growers will begin separate efforts this year on what they eventually hope merges into a local food hub.

After 18 months of study made possible with a federal grant, the food hub concept that would get more fresh produce into local homes and also build new value-added products from locally farmed produce is taking shape.

A joint effort between BMAC and its food bank as well as about 10 regional organizations has led to a vision: expansion of the Cherry Street food bank to distribute more produce to clients and tie into a greater value-added project that kicks off with a pilot program of locally made salsa and hot sauce.

Details of the concept — including study findings — are being shared in a “Next Steps” meeting today at the Walla Walla Regional Airport conference room.

Arrowleaf Consulting, which led the study process, will present findings, feasible models, the value-added component and need for an education component, according to an announcement.

This is a step in a long process that formally kicked off September 2018 with the award of $133,566 to BMAC as part of the USDA’s Local Food Promotion Program Grant.

The idea was to look at the needs of the area and explore where — from Dayton to Pendleton — a food hub would best serve the region. The shared goal was to better feed the public while also maximizing production of local farms, particularly with robust gleaning programs in place.

The process concluded that Walla Walla worked best as a central location and the expansion of the existing food bank spot as more feasible than a whole new operation.

Meanwhile, a cluster of growers — Frog Hollow Farm, Hayshaker Farm, Welcome Table Farm and Miles Away Farm — under the umbrella “Walla Walla Grown” will forge ahead seeking grants for a “proof of concept” small-production run of fresh salsa and fermented hot sauce.

If the ideas work, the eventual merger will bring together an expanded food bank that can process and distribute refrigerated foods beyond the shelf-stable offerings for which it’s most known, along with space for creation of the specialty foodline that can use the produce that would otherwise go to waste.

“In terms of how it pencils out, we don’t know yet,” said Jennifer Kleffner, owner of Miles Away Farm.

She said planning for the next cycle of grants will take place at the meeting. Walla Walla Grown is working on finding a rental space to start its small production run. The model is intended to maximize the use of produce while feeding more people and supporting farms all in one process.

“If you want to have a big impact, you have to meet people where they are,” she said.

Kleffner said the food bank would likely need to double in size for the joint operation.

Jeff Mathias, executive director of the BMAC Food Bank, said a request is in the works for $500,000 from the Legislature for capacity infrastructure grants. On a national level, a Farm to Food Bank program may be another resource to help move forward.

First though, BMAC will be on the move to its new headquarters on Second Avenue, Mathias said. The food bank will remain in its spot, but the move for BMAC is a primary focus at the moment.

He said starting small on each end will help lead to the longer-term vision.

“They’ll start small on their own and then hopefully — cross our fingers — we’ll meet back in a couple of years and be able to merge what they’re doing on their own and what the food bank’s doing,” Mathias said.

“We’ve got the same goals: more vegetables and produce in the community.”

Registration for today’s meeting is required and available by calling 509-524-5218. Information is also available through the Walla Walla Valley Food System Coalition site at wwvfsc.org.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 509-526-8321.

Vicki covers business and economic development, including tourism, the Port of Walla Walla and the Strictly Business column, as well as features. She has been reporting for the Union-Bulletin since late 2001.