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Muskegon County, Michigan Completes Food Hub Feasibility Study, Gets USDA Funding

January 26, 2016 |

Muskegon County, Michigan is one step closer to getting a food hub after completing a feasibility study conducted in partnership by Morse Marketing Connections and Cherry Capital Foods, an established food hub located in Traverse City.

In a study conducted in 2015 by County Health Rankings, Muskegon ranked 65 out of 82 for Health Behaviors, which includes factors such as adult obesity and food environment index (economic status and access to consistent sources of healthy food). That’s partly because Muskegon is a food desert.

“We don’t have a grocery store in downtown Muskegon or downtown Muskegon Heights,” says Marty Gerencer, founder and principal at Morse Marketing Connections. “The few convenience stores located in the city do not sell fresh fruits and vegetables.” 

According to the County Health Rankings website, living in a food desert correlates with high instances of obesity and premature death.

Gerencer and her team set out to find out more about the needs of Muskegon’s residents through a food hub feasibility study. Food hubs look at food distribution from several angles– economic, environmental and social. Each food hub is unique and operational models are based on citizens’ needs, community strengths and the geographic location of each facility.

“Muskegon is a small urban hub for many communities that are dense with agriculture,” Gerencer says. “We have a lot of fruit, vegetables, dairy—a good diversity of products.” The city also has an airport, is situated right along the US Highway 31 corridor, and has railyards and a port. “This feasibility study set out to promote the hypothesis that Muskegon would be a good place to bring in products and distribute them through the region and beyond,” Gerencer says.

The study revealed that it’s helpful to have local food entities nearby, since many of the same vendors from the local farmers’ market would also supply the food hub. 

“We often refer to this as a ‘regional food innovation district,’” Gerencer explains. “When we have these businesses near each other, we can work together. Folks that are making their jams, jellies and salsas in a community kitchen at the farmers’ market can then sell their product to the food hub. If it’s all close, we can gain marketing and financial efficiency for farmers, entities and buyers.”

Another part of food hub work is promoting sustainable growing methods. “We work with farmers to meet the needs of our buyers,” Gerencer says. “Sustainably-grown product is in high demand, yet those are the folks who often have trouble selling their products in the marketplace. The infrastructure system we have now is not set up for small growers. By setting up a hub, we can have 50 farmers come to one place; then the hub distributes products out to bigger businesses for them.”

There are many aspects to a food hub that may differ from traditional distribution models. Take, for example, how food is transported. The vast majority of food in the United States is transported via trucks. Muskegon County is actively looking for more innovative ways to use their deep water port. Transporting food by water could be a more economical, environmentally-friendly option.

The social impact of a food hub in Muskegon is perhaps the most exciting aspect of the plan. Having access to fresh food is an important piece of improving Muskegon County’s health rankings. “Because we have a large segment of low-income people in our community, getting the food into the hands of our low-income citizens is one of the goals. Everyone here is ready to have access to more healthy local food sources,” Gerencer says.

The feasibility study wrapped up in June, and the team got such positive feedback from participants that they immediately applied for—and won–$25,000 in USDA funding (plus an additional $8,000 from community partners) for an implementation plan that will help determine the food hub’s location and cost of the build-out.

During the study, the team discovered a pleasant surprise–a project like this would be a return to the city’s roots. In the 1930’s, long before the term “food hub” entered the vernacular, Muskegon was a major food distribution point. Says Gerencer: “In a lot of ways we are coming back to what we used to do, we are just trying to do it better.”

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