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U.S. Sen. Mark Warner enjoys lunch and conversation with local officials at the Southern Virginia Maker’s Market in South Hill, part of the region’s Food Hub. (Susan Kyte photo) / June 12, 2019

Over lunch at the Southern Virginia Maker’s Market Thursday in South Hill, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner learned what a collective of 122 local farmers in eight southern Virginia counties is doing to make locally-grown foods available to consumers while also helping small family farms and the local economy.

Together, these farmers make up the Southern Virginia Food Hub, whose mission is to increase consumption of local foods by community members and expand food-related businesses using local products.

The issue is important to Warner, who for the past two years has offered legislation in Congress that would benefit low-income rural and urban communities that have limited or non-existent access to nutritious food — so-called “food deserts.” Warner’s legislation would provide incentives to food service providers such as grocers, retailers, and non-profits to expand access to nutritious foods in underserved communities.

He was in South Hill to find out what he could do to help the Food Hub grow and thrive.

Ann Taylor Wright, the organizer behind the Maker’s Market and the Southern Virginia Food Hub said, “We (SOVA Food Hub members) recognize the need for mass food production because we are never going to be able to feed the entire population through small farmers, but then there is the area of the country, such as ours, that suffers from lack of access to healthy food. In those areas that are not big enough for a grocery store, this — the food hub — would be perfect.”

Taylor said she would like to see their model replicated across Virginia and the U.S., but for now she is concentrating on an eight-county area that includes Mecklenburg, Halifax, Brunswick, Charlotte, Lunenburg, Dinwiddie, Nottoway and Greensville.

As Warner enjoyed lunch prepared by Maker’s Market chef Will Woodall, Wright explained the various components that make up the Food Hub and Maker’s Market.

Foremost, she said, the Food Hub is a collective of farmers who need a new avenue through which to offer their product to local consumers. It is also so much more, Wright said. It is a USDA-inspected kitchen and dairy processing room that farmers, caterers, and others can use to make value-added foods using local farm products.

The Maker’s Market serves as an educational facility for classes designed to educate the public about the benefits of consuming locally grown and produced products as well as business and marketing classes that help local farmers learn to maximize their profits. It also offers a grocery store where customers can purchase fresh produce, meat and dairy products from small farmers or ready-to-eat meals cooked in the Maker’s Market kitchen using locally sourced foods.

Soon, there will be a distribution network for farmers looking to sell their products at the Maker’s Market. And it is a business incubator for those looking to get into the food production business. They can develop and test their product at the Maker’s Market using the commercial kitchen.

This works, Wright said, because the Food Hub and Maker’s Market are conjoined with South Hill’s Farmers Market and 122 farmers from across Southside Virginia that sell produce, dairy, eggs, cheese, herbs, meats, and value-added products such as pimento cheese, granola, candy and chocolate covered apples, baked goods, and more.

Warner said he’d “never seen anything as complete as the Southern Virginia Food Hub with its commercial kitchen, market, ties to the farmer’s market and pick up and distribution networks, and its educational and business entrepreneurship aspects.” Wright credited Dr. Theresa Nartea of Virginia State University with helping determine which components were needed for a successful food hub. Wright said Nartea’s doctoral dissertation is on innovative, direct farm marketing strategies and local foods community planning — in short, food hubs. She helped Wright with the “front end research.”

Wright pointed at one area that has been blocked to the small farmers and ranchers who are part of the SOVA Food Hub — direct sales to institutions such as schools and hospitals. Before that can happen, Wright said, federal and state laws need to change.

Currently most of the school districts and hospitals contract out their food service operations. These companies prohibit the institutions from purchasing foods from outside vendors. One local beef producer said the only way he can sell his meat to the local schools is to sell it directly to the culinary arts class for use in class projects, but they cannot use the product in school breakfast or lunch production.

Warner said he would need to work out the details, but threw out the idea of offering federal legislation that would mandate that any school receiving federal funds be allowed to purchase a set percentage of their food products from local vendors even if the cost was greater than they would pay if the food was procured from a national vendor, and not withstanding any contract with a food service company that prohibits this type of procurement.

Warner suggested this legislation would be more palatable to the members of Congress if they could show the economic benefit to communities from buying local products. Warner was not aware if such a study had been done, and neither was Wright or Debra Gosney with the Southside Planning Commission, who was also at Thursday’s lunch.

Warner appeared surprised to learn that only one federal grant was earmarked to create the Southern Virginia Food Hub and Maker’s Market. It came from the USDA. The $1 million-plus in grant funding for the Food Hub has come primarily from the Virginia Tobacco Commission and the Virginia Department of Health and Consumer Services.

One piece of equipment that Wright said would help the Maker’s Market prepare and offer shelf-stable foods to commercial and institutional buyers is a $400,000 commercial freeze dryer. She said freeze drying preserves about 98 percent of the nutritional value of food making it a healthier option.

A commercial freeze dryer could process 1,000 pounds of produce at a time. These foods could then be stored for later sale, or at that quantity sold to schools and hospitals to use in making meals.

Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols spoke about how schools could benefit from the Food Hub beyond the ability to serve healthier meals. “We are trying desperately to have the students become creative and critical thinkers. This [the Southern Virginia Maker’s Market] is where they can come to participate in job shadowing, an option which in rural areas we don’t get a lot of.”

South Hill Town Manager Kim Callis also pointed out how the popularity of the food hub has sparked interest from the local hospital. He said VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital is looking at ways they can interact with the local farmers. For a start, the hospital would like to open a second farmer’s market which would be located near the hospital on the northern edge of town.

Currently, the South Hill Farmer’s Market is open Saturday mornings, May through October, at the corner of Danville Street and Mecklenburg Avenue in the square across from the Maker’s Market.

While Warner made no promises as far as legislative changes, he was openly impressed by the achievements of the Southern Virginia Food Hub and Maker’s Market. About his bipartisan legislation that could benefit the SOVA Food Hub, Warner said, “in a rational place this legislation would have been enacted, but I don’t work in a rational place.”

The Healthy Food Access for All Americans (HFAAA) Act that Warner sponsored along with Terry Moran (R-KS), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), and Bob Casey (D-PA) would increase access to grocery stores in areas designated as “food deserts” by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

When he introduced the bill for the second time in March, Warner said, “Families in Virginia must be able to count on reliable access to healthy and affordable foods no matter where they live. This legislation will increase the availability of dependable nutritious food for more than one million Virginians, and support grocery markets and non-profits in their efforts to serve the communities that need them the most.” The bill is pending in Congress.

Currently, an estimated 37 million Americans live in food deserts — areas with no grocery stores within one or more miles in urban regions, and ten or more miles in rural regions. Nearly half of Mecklenburg County’s population meets this definition.

Warner and Wright agreed that individuals who live in communities with low access to healthy food options are at higher risk for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

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