Federal program to help connect farmers to urban Louisville consumers

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer talked about the new U.S. Department of Agriculture program the city is taking part in. | Photo by Caitlin Bowling

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer talked about the new U.S. Department of Agriculture program the city is taking part in. USDA administrator Elanor Starmer is shown at right. | Photo by Caitlin Bowling

Since emerging bankruptcy in 2010, Louisville-based Custom Food Solutions has been building a business based on the philosophy that if they can source an ingredient locally, they will, said co-owner Mike Higgins.

Higgins owns the food manufacturing and packaging company with his twin brother Matt Higgins. They also co-own Tex-Mex restaurant chain Tumbleweed, which is a CFS client, along with Jefferson County Public Schools, Churchill Downs and the University of Kentucky.

During a tour of the facility Thursday, Higgins shows U.S. Department of Agriculture administrator Elanor Starmer, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and others how it makes large batches of queso for Tumbleweed and prepares cookies that are made almost completely with ingredients from Kentucky. Flour for the cookies comes from Weisenberger Mill, based out of Midway, Ky.

“Students care,” Higgins said. “They are going to buy more of that cookie because it’s local flour.”

The company also is working on recipes that involve butternut squash and sweet potatoes for JCPS because the two crops are easily grown in Kentucky.

The tour was part of the 14th annual Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems Funders forum, which was held in Louisville this week. Ahead of the tour, Fischer and Starmer talked about a new partnership between the city and the federal government.

Back in March, the USDA announced the creation of the FOOD LINC program, a nearly $3 million partnership between the federal government and philanthropic organizations to strengthen local food-supply chains. Ten cities, including Louisville, were chosen to participate.

In each of the cities, the USDA will station a full-time Food LINC coordinator who will identify the necessary steps to create “more robust local and regional food systems.” Louisville’s coordinator will be embedded with Louisville’s Farm to Table, a city-run program funded by the Kentucky Agricultural Development Board that helps connect farmers to consumers.

“Essentially what they are going to be doing is they are going to be working with producers throughout the state of Kentucky, understanding where the demands are here in Louisville, and then trying to help those producers actually meet that demand,” Starmer told Insider Louisville.

For example, there is high demand for organic produce locally but not much organic produce being grown. Farm to Table can help connect farmers with funding to help them transition to organic agriculture.

“The other thing that we as USDA are going to get out of it is to be able to learn what Sarah (Fritschner, coordinator for Farm to Table) and Theresa (Zawacki, senior policy advisor for Louisville Forward) are doing and understand better what works and what the needs are, so that we can then more appropriately target our funding,” Starmer said.

Louisville already has made strides to connect food producers to companies, schools and people through Farm to Table, and nonprofit Seed Capital Kentucky, along with numerous partnerships, is set to break ground later this year on the $56 million, 24-acre West Louisville FoodPort.

“We were really impressed with what Sarah and Theresa were already doing,” Starmer said. “And we felt like there was so much potential, particularly given the movement away from coal and tobacco and the opportunities that has created to have a really high capacity workforce that is interested in getting into new and different types of agriculture, and the demand for local foods. You have this perfect confluence.”

Louisville completed a local food demand analysis back in 2012 and found that consumer and commercial demand for local food equaled $611 million.

“One of the greatest things that came back from that is that no matter where you lived in our city people wanted more local food,” said Mayor Fischer. “They wanted more local food because they thought it was higher quality, tastes better, more nutritious, and they wanted to ‘help local business.’ Local businesses to them in this context was local farmers.”

The USDA and national and local philanthropic groups will give the city a total $500,000 in funding for Food LINC. The city will invest $120,000 in the program’s efforts locally.