People from around the state met up in North Little Rock this past June to help develop the Regional Food Innovation Center (left). Arkansas Innovation Hub leader Warwick Sabin has been instrumental in securing funding for the RFIC.

 

LOCAL FOOD ACCESS

Regional Innovation Hub seeks better food for everyone

By: Lisa Armstrong   Phoyography: Courtesy Of The University Of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service And Arkansas Innovation Hub

The Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, a community organization dedicated to helping entrepreneurs make, design and build products and businesses in the state, is developing a new center focused on bringing local food closer to homes, schools and workplaces. Dubbed the Regional Food Innovation Center (RFIC), the new initiative hopes to gather, process and distribute local food to schools, hospitals and other institutions in the central Arkansas area. 

In 2014, the Regional Innovation Hub and a team of community organizers got assistance through a federal initiative called Local Foods, Local Places. Warwick Sabin, executive director of the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, hopes this money will allow the organization to help farmers and other producers create businesses focused on bringing local food to the people of Arkansas. “We continue to encounter entrepreneurs who want to get agricultural products to market, but resources haven’t been available,” says Warwick. 

Food processing and distribution centers make it easier for restaurants, grocery stores and others to buy food locally, says Amanda Philyaw-Perez, a community food development specialist with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service who helped develop the Regional Food Innovation Center. Ten years ago, while working on an obesity project at the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences campus, Amanda helped enact changes to cafeteria meals and school vending machines offerings. “But getting individuals to eat all the fruits and vegetables they need every day is a tough challenge,” she says. As a result, she decided that she wanted to help create systems that changed the access to foods in local communities.

The time for such a program has never been better, according to Amanda. “Young people were suddenly interested in farming and sustainability,” she says. “The demand for locally grown food from restaurant owners and their customers increased. And many schools are interested in buying local foods—but can’t figure out the logistics, or how to connect with a local producer.” The Food Innovation Center sees itself as a way to bridge those gaps and bring people the local food they crave.

One RFIC partner is the newly launched Local First Arkansas program. Modeled on Local First Arizona, Local First Arkansas is a chamber of commerce for local businesses. An aspect of Local First Arkansas that dovetails with the Food Innovation Center is an “eat local” campaign, which encourages individuals to purchase fresh and prepared food in nearby communities. Warwick Sabin sees it as a potential game-changer. “If we’re able to come together to create a more efficient food system in central Arkansas, it could be a model for the rest of the state,” he says. 

In order to build and maintain a local food system, there are several key pieces that have to be in place:

  • People who want to grow and sell fresh food or products made from fresh local food.
  • A way to process and distribute the food.
  • Direct marketing between farmers and consumers, including schools, hospitals and other institutions. 
  • Technical assistance for farmers and other producers.

The challenge at this point is getting a building large enough to do everything the RFIC wants to do. Although at first organizers thought that they could use the Regional Innovation Hub, they soon realized that this wasn’t a workable plan. “We’re continuing to look for a space, and we hope that it can be close to the Innovation Hub,” Warwick says. “The food innovation center will be a separate facility with things like a certified industrial kitchen space, gardens, greenhouses and places for food processing, labeling and packaging.”

Even before the RFIC is open in early 2018, organizers say that they want to present classes in fall 2016 on growing methods, cooking classes and children’s programming. It’s a great start to what will hopefully be a new way for farmers, consumers and artisans to connect and create like never before.

For more information, visit arhub.org.