Drive on to get food hub in Southern Md.

Associate Editor

(April 5, 2016) Last month, on the final day of Easter vacation before his children returned to school, Michael Stotler packed his two boys into his Hyundai Santa Fe and set out around southern Anne Arundel County on a less-than-ideal quest to buy local produce.
Stops at Fresh Market, Whole Foods and Greenstreet Gardens were on the agenda.
“On any given day when I shop, it can take as long as four to six hours,” the personal chef from Deale said.
He said he runs his business “pretty much from the dashboard of the Santa Fe. I’ve got a briefcase, I’ve got a tablet, I’ve got a telephone.”
He was scheduled to give a cooking lesson the next day to a woman undergoing chemotherapy who hoped to make better meals for herself and her family.
Stotler and the woman planned to make a stuffed chicken dish with a vegetable.
“She wants to stay gluten-free,” he said. “And she always likes to have a dessert too.”
Stotler and his client represent a growing number of chefs and consumers expressing a desire for better access to healthy, locally grown food.
This nationwide demand has fueled everything from an exploding farm-to-table trend across the restaurant industry to new aisles of organic food at the grocery store.
But in Anne Arundel County, some are hoping it could lead to a distribution partnership between local chefs and farmers.
Over the last year, several meetings have been held in the area to create what’s being referred to as a “food hub” or a “food aggregation center.”
The meetings have attracted farmers and chefs from across the Southern Maryland region.
Organizers hope the effort will eventually lead to a location where farmers can easily warehouse produce for chefs scattered across the area who could access the supply or submit orders on the Internet, said Anna Cheney, owner of Herrington on the Bay, an event and catering service in Rose Haven, and an Anne Arundel County farm owner.
“One of the biggest challenges we find down here is just transportation time,” Cheney said. “Our chefs across the board are demanding (better distribution).”
The chef at Herrington on the Bay — which hosted meetings dedicated to the hub — is forced to drive to several local farms to find most of the catering company’s produce and other products, including meat, sweet corn and tomatoes, Cheney said.
“It’s a lot of time on the road for us, and while we think it’s worth it, it’s not always feasible,” she said.
Stotler is also a prime example. He attended the meeting at Cheney’s catering company and said he sees a growing number of people, particularly at farmers’ markets, who want to know where their food comes from and want as little distance as possible between the source of their food and the fork in their hands.
“Chefs want to cook this way,” he said. “They want to cook with this food away from the Sysco truck backing up everyday. … I like to support local and sustainable foods and agriculture, and I think there’s a lot of people out there now like that. You can kind of see a food revolution going on. People, they’re fed up.”
The project is still in its infancy, and Cheney said if it’s successful, it could arrive in a number of forms — a sponsored pilot program, for instance.
Eventually, she sees it as a self-sustaining business that owns the means of distribution but not the food. Chesapeake Farm to Table, an online marketplace for farmers and chefs managed from Sparks outside Baltimore, has been described as a model.
The service lists several farms across northern Maryland and southern Pennsylvania as users, and Jack and Beckie Gurley of Calvert’s Gift Farm in Sparks own it.
The service delivers to restaurants, and several Baltimore eateries are featured users of the site.
And while the farm-to-table movement is particularly popular in urban areas such as Baltimore and Washington, Cheney said she thinks that’s just the start.
“The huge movement of people being aware where their food comes from is not going to go away,” she said. “It’s going to slowly move out our way.”
There have been discussions with the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission and the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp. about starting a hub pilot program, Cheney said.
Lisa Barge, the corporation’s agriculture marketing and development manager, also sits on the Southern Maryland commission’s board. She said she thinks the region will likely see a food hub in its future.
The Southern Maryland commission is in the process of developing a food hub/agricultural business park and food innovation center that would include a meat processing facility, land for new farmer incubation and a warehouse for distribution of local farmers’ products to wholesale and retail buyers — all with the goal of helping local farmers get a piece of what the commission estimates is a $26 billion food market across the Washington-Baltimore region.
Organizers of the Anne Arundel food hub could potentially find a home there, Barge said.
If it does work out, Stotler said he’d advertise his participation on his menus to show how much he supports local growers.
“The farmers need to spend their time in the dirt. … This would make distribution very fluid. It’s easier, very accessible and competitive,” he said. “And I think people would respond very well to that. It’s good for the farmer, it’s good for the restaurant and it’s great for the community.”