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Nonprofit Gets Flashy With Local Food, Employs Disadvantaged

Nonprofit Gets Flashy With Local Food, Employs Disadvantaged

October 8, 2014 |

postFarmtoFreezer_InnFader-01Sometimes it takes a little flash to make a good idea happen. Goodwill Industries of Northern Michigan (GINM) has been taking this approach to heart with their Farm to Freezer program, a job training initiative that flash freezes produce for the benefit of participants and local farms.

The Traverse City-based  organization is part of an international network of independent nonprofits that provide services and support for people with barriers to employment. Proceeds from Goodwill retail outlets help to finance their work.

Farm to Freezer is proudly billed on the northern Michigan organization’s website as a program that gives transitional employment to disabled and disadvantaged individuals, provides new markets and a longer selling season for local farmers and brings nutritious food to the community. GINM is the primary funder of the initiative, which falls under the group’s mission of helping families and individuals get access to jobs, housing and food.

At its heart, the program is a social enterprise that allows trainees to get experience purchasing, processing and freezing local produce. Launched in 2013, it’s one of several food-related programs available through the nonprofit. The idea for incorporating locally grown foods into the nonprofits work originally came from Mark Coe, who at the time worked for Calvin Lutz Farms in Kaleva, Michigan and now runs Farm to Freezer.

“I pitched the idea of a local branded product line of fruits and vegetables to director of food services, Brandon Seng,” he says. “And he added the job training aspect to it and ran with the idea. He then talked me into coming on board and managing the program.”

Under the program, GINM purchases food from local growers like Lutz Farms and Apple Valley Orchards. Trainees process and freeze the produce in a commercial kitchen with a blast freezer and put it into cold storage. The product is then sold as a specialized local frozen product line to various retail outlets, restaurants and institutional buyers.

The product line features vegetables like asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet peppers, rhubarb, carrots, and Kohlrabi as well as a special crop known as the Romanesco broccoli that has a unique fractal-patterned bud. Fruits include peach and apple slices, strawberries, blueberries and saskatoons, as well as sweet and tart varieties of cherries, the region’s signature crop .

Participants in the program are local people who are either unemployed or underemployed. They include tenants from the organization’s Goodwill Inn homeless shelter and those who have been through an addiction treatment  program. This season, 21 people have been trained, have found job placement through Farm to Freezer, or are currently working with the program. Last year, fifteen participated.

“Farm to Freezer is a stepping stone to gainful employment,” says Coe. “We start with a ServSafe training class. It is a two-week program and when the trainees finish the class they have the opportunity to come into Farm To Freezer as an apprentice to learn the processing and freezing of locally purchased fruits and vegetables.”

Last season the program worked with four different farms and purchased 40,000 pounds of fruits and vegetable. They now have 16 farms on board and plan to purchase over 10,000 pounds for the current one.

The Farm to Freezer product line is currently sold at 19 retail locations selling products and will be in 9 school districts this school year. The program also has a local distributor, Cherry Capital Foods, which sells their goods to area restaurants.

Coe says a lot of excitement has been gathering around the project since its launch last year; so much, in fact, that he envisions expansion as a definite possibility.

“Right now, I’m trying to bring more farmers in from Northern Michigan, and, as word gets out there about our project, I’m sure demand will grow,” he says. “The sky’s the limit.”

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