MONTROSE – The idea was to bring everyone to the table, and to share locally grown foods as well as information, strategies and ideas designed to better connect local agricultural producers with those who consume their products.
The Valley Food Forum, held at Montrose United Methodist Church on Thursday, Dec. 8, and facilitated by Carol Parker of the Valley Food Partnership, drew an interested crowd of farmers, nutrition experts, business owners, executives and others eager to share ideas and discuss new ways to bring locally grown foods and products to hungry consumers.
One of the region’s most exciting new developments was discussed by Deana Sheriff, program director for Volunteers of America in western Colorado.
“We are your market,” Sheriff told those in attendance. “Volunteers of America is a 115-year-old charity, an offshoot of the Salvation Army. We have 450 locations, from homeless shelters to nursing homes, throughout the United States, and 16,000 employees. We serve more than 17,000 meals at our eight local meal sites in Delta, Montrose and San Miguel counties.”
In addition to Senior CommUnity Meals, Volunteers of America operates the local Meals on Wheels program.
“It is very challenging to find the foods we need,” Sheriff said, “which is surprising since we live in such a wonderful breadbasket area. But we are mandated to provide certain nutritional values, and when we buy in large volumes for our facilities, it can be difficult to find a can of tomatoes with no salt.”
Despite its size, Volunteers of America accounts for only one percent of the market for large food distributors, Sheriff noted.
“How can we make things better for our folks?” she asked. “We started really looking at the products we need. The numbers of seniors we serve is growing, and many of them are not healthy. We want to keep costs down, and find the products we need to keep nutritional levels high,” cost-wise.
In addition to using more locally grown produce, Sheriff said, “We want to support our local farmers, and buy your excess produce to process ourselves.” With excess produce, she said, cost-reducing bulk-processing is possible. For example, “We can flash-freeze and can things without sugar and salt, and use them to feed our people for the rest of the year.”
To accomplish these goals, Volunteers of America will take over an existing building in Delta as a commercial kitchen and canning facility, Sheriff reported.
“Delta is a convenient hub for our multiple counties and producers,” she said. “We want a closed loop system – what you plant, we buy – let’s use all the resources available.”
The plant facility would include a community meal site for local seniors, and be available for use by local producers when not in use by Volunteers of America, she said.
“We want to offer our kitchen to producers” of locally grown food, for preparing “your own, value-added products,” Sheriff said. “With all of the great producers in the area we still won’t have the quantity we need, but let’s take what we have here and use it – especially those products that would otherwise go to waste. By providing a local purchase point, and developing a local commercial kitchen and canning facility, we can make use of an existing, vacant building and create jobs,” she said, and “we will hire people to keep it running throughout the year.
“Our market is not going away,” Sheriff said, “it will continue to grow.”
Also on the agenda were Chelsea Bookout, a horticultural therapist, and Maya Silver, communications
director of the Colorado Office of Resource Efficiency, who spoke about www.localfarmsfirst.com, an internet-based marketing forum for agricultural producers.
“It was founded by Allison of Holy Terror Farm, in Paonia as a marketing and distribution forum for local foods,” Silver said, of localfarmsfirst.com, which came into being as “part of a ‘locally grown’ network based in Georgia – an online farmers market.”
“It facilitates direct transactions; every week producers upload their products, and consumers place their orders,” Bookout said, of the website. “Someone picks up orders, and takes them to a drop-off point. It is key to have a driver who picks things up and sorts them; we live in a cold climate, and this allows our farmers to extend their market nearly all year round.”
While the concept is new, and will hardly replace traditional farm markets any time soon, the idea is to reduce transport time by allowing consumers access to products, and not requiring farmers to travel. The site also features recipes and tips on cooking techniques, Silver added.
Also discussed at the forum was the need for creative solutions for marketing and distribution, and for addressing regulations and labor issues; the processing challenges facing meat producers; and the need for better infrastructure, as well as for more education and opportunities for community involvement.
For more information, visit www.valleyfoodpartnership.org.
On the Table at the Valley Food Forum