Elkhart County working to rebuild the local food system one step at a time

April 2, 2014 
After Share the Bounty Week last year, Phil Metzler discovered that people in Elkhart County are very hungry for fresh initiatives about how to get local food on their plates.
So when he heard about Purdue University's Rebuilding Your Local Food System extension program, Metzler got together with Kurt Bullard of Church Community Services, Phyllis Miller of Maple City Market, Dale Hess of Merry Lea ELC at Goshen College and Elkhart County Commissioner Mike Yoder to apply.
In January, Elkhart County and an area in southwest Indiana were chosen as the two pilot communities for the program.
Now the members of that group, with Metzler's leadership, are looking to get other people from the community involved. Their goal for the program is to help connect farmers, gardeners and others who grow food with people, businesses and organizations in Elkhart County who need food.
"We have a wonderfully sophisticated food superhighway. It's a marvel of technology and commerce," Metzler said. "But we've let go of a lot of local infrastructure."
Ideally, local infrastructure for food goes beyond farmers markets and community gardens. It includes food hubs that allow businesses to purchase large quantities of local food without having to go to each individual producer on the county and state levels. It also includes cooperatives like Maple City Market in Goshen and the Purple Porch Co-Op in South Bend that provide local foods to individuals. And licensed kitchens that help educate people on cooking and food science. It also involves preserving valuable land for growing food and establishing systems for storing local food year-round.
The Crossroads Resource Center estimates that Indiana imports 90% of its food.
"I don’t think anyone would have guessed that," Bullard said. "That ought to get everyone’s attention. How could that be? We need to do a better job at connecting producers with users, so it doesn’t have to go clear across the country, turn around and come back here to be used."
The same study found that Hoosiers spend an average of $14.5 billion every year on out-of-state food.
"(The benefit of) spending that money locally is a no brainer," Metzler said.
Local extension director Mary Ann Lienhart-Cross said Elkhart County has an entrepreneurial spirit, so she hopes the local food system can play a role in the area's economy.
“That’s why the RV industry is here, and it’s why the music industry is here," she said. "It’s why there’s a lot of small businesses and family businesses, so it makes sense to connect that to our local food system.”
But to get there takes some work, and for that people need to get involved. There are a lot of opportunities and needs, and Metzler said anyone's expertise or passions could be useful.
"The biggest resource on the front end is the human energy. Anyone can get involved," he said. "We all eat. We're all stakeholders."