Senator Mark Warner visited the soon-to-open Southern Virginia Makers Market on Friday. Area farmers and Food Hub coordinators discussed the benefits and challenges of getting food from small farms into rural communities and shared about how the hub is helping to make that happen.
Warner has sponsored legislation aimed at eliminating food deserts, areas defined as having no grocery stores within a mile in urban areas or within ten miles in rural areas and having certain poverty levels. The Healthy Food Access for All Americans Act would provide tax credits to qualifying businesses building or retrofitting grocery stores in food deserts and would provide grants to non-profit food banks or temporary access structures, such as farmers markets or mobile markets.
“In a rational place, it’d be law by now, ‘cause it’s got plenty of bipartisan support,” Warner said. “I don’t necessarily work in a rational place, but, you know, we’re going to keep pushing it.”
Warner said later that the funding for the grant portion of that legislation would come from the general fund.
While at the market, Warner got a taste of what will soon be available for all customers: a prepared hot meal made from products grown or raised on local farms.
Ann Taylor Wright, the food hub’s coordinator, shared information about the project with the senator. She said that the food hub and market are unique in that they combine numerous components, such as education, a grocery store, a dairy room, and an inspected kitchen, in one place. The market serves as a business incubator that allows entrepreneurs to try out making a product in the market’s inspected kitchen instead of investing in their own right from the start.
Wright also spoke about the potential health impacts of increasing the consumption of recently harvested local food and brought up the possibility of putting some healthcare funding towards nutritious food, pointing to current health trends in Southside Virginia.
“We have one of the highest cancer rates in the world—not the United States, not Virginia, the world, but they’re all different kinds of cancer,” Wright said.
She said that people today do not have the time, desire, or know-how to cook, so the Food Hub will be serving ready-made meals made from locally-sourced ingredients.
“Putting the local food into a ready-to-eat form is going to be huge for this project,” Wright said.
Because the market is non-profit and grant funded, the goal is to offer the meals at $7 per serving so the price will be comparable to that of fast-food.
Warner and the attendees also discussed the possibility of addressing laws dealing with procurement to allow schools more flexibility to buy local even if the goods are at a slightly higher cost.
One topic of discussion was the economic impact of the project for local farmers. Amy Davis of Moses Mill Farm spoke about what the food hub has done for her business.
“In our rural communities, we have a strong agricultural heritage in Virginia, and I’d like for us to embrace that agricultural heritage. Already, Ann is my biggest customer, and she’s not even open. So it’s making a huge economic impact in my life already, and she’s not even open yet. And to get this going in all of our rural communities in Virginia, which is going to transform our economic climate and our health, I think we need documentarians interested, I think we need angel investors interested, ‘cause I would love to go for five years without pay and do something like this in my community, but I honestly can’t.”
Wright sees the Southern Virginia Food Hub and Makers Market as serving as a prototype for other localities.
“There’s a lot of places that want to do this,” Wright said. “I get calls almost weekly now from other areas of Virginia, saying ‘we want to do this where we are; how do we do it?” Wright said.
The Food Hub has applied for a grant through the USDA Local Food Promotion program to cover a director’s salary, as Wright has headed up the project for the last five years without one, and Warner has promised to write a supporting letter on behalf of the Food Hub. Warner has also asked the food hub organizers to think about who in the government or corporate worlds they would like to see visit the market.
The market has been open on Saturday mornings since the beginning of May, but its grand opening is scheduled for Thursday, after which it will be open Wednesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.