Producers of food are plentiful in Centre County. In fact, Centre County holds more than 1,100 farms, which sold over $91.5 million in agricultural products, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture.
But only 1 percent of food produced in the county is actually consumed here, according to Commissioner Mark Higgins, proponent of a cheese factory in Centre County.
Travis Lesser couldn’t believe that.
“I was really surprised that we’re surrounded by all this farmland (in Centre County) ... and yet the food here is less than desirable,” he said.
Originally from St. Marys, Lesser — who comes from a long line of entrepreneurs — saw an opportunity in all the local products made in Centre County, and decided to found Appalachian Food Works, a food hub for Centre County — and possibly beyond.
“I see this as being longer term, as being not only a distributor of locally raised and grown food … (but to) help farmers get more return for their harvest, and help them create a more sustainable business,” he said.
More than 80 percent of farm sales in Centre County were generated by 243 farms — only 20 percent of total farms — that had sales of $100,000 or more, according to the 2012 Agricultural Census. That left a little over half of Centre County farms with annual sales of less than $10,000.
The food hub would include several different aspects, acting as a “clearinghouse” for all things local food related. First, Lesser and his team would act as a middleman between farms and buyers, like local restaurants, schools, nursing homes and grocery stores.
“We’re the wholesale entity,” he said. “We are brokering the sale, we’re aggregating the product, we’re storing the product if necessary (and) we’re distributing the product.”
But he also wants the food hub to have a significant educational component. His vision, he said, is to have a food and agriculture incubator space equipped with a commercial kitchen for chefs and entrepreneurs to work on their products and “do a small run of production.”
Part of the educational component also includes connecting people to the local food scene, said Lesser, like farmers markets, food co-ops, Community Supported Agriculture and restaurants that serve locally sourced ingredients.
“It truly will be a food hub where (you can find) anything that you want to know ... that has to do with local food,” he said.
Lesser, who holds an MBA from the Smeal College of Business at Penn State, said he has been focused on working within the already existing economy to bring a food hub to Centre County.
‘I’m taking this from more of a business case ... let’s see where the natural infrastructures already exist ... rather than trying to take over something and start something new,” he said.
In 2008, a nonprofit wholesale food distributor in Philadelphia called The Common Market opened, and Lesser said it is now considered the national model for food hubs around the country.
“They’re now distributing from New York to D.C.,” he said. “They’ve done it the right way.”
Here in Centre County, Lesser said there are several people who helped lay the groundwork for this project. Jim Eisenstein, a retired Penn State professor and local food activist, has advocated for many years for Centre County residents to buy local. Jeremy Bean, an organizational change management consultant at Penn State, and Elizabeth Kennedy, a Penn State MBA candidate who authored a white paper on food hubs, were both instrumental in trying to get a food hub established through the Penn State Sustainability Institute, he said. Higgins “helped open up doors for me” by pushing Lesser to present his idea to the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County.
There are many restaurants who want to source locally, said Lesser, but it can be a struggle to coordinate with 10-12 different farms. The Appalachian Food Works model, he said, saves buyers time by allowing them to go to the food hub for all their local food needs.
For Lesser, Appalachian Food Works isn’t just a business he’s starting up — it’s a response to societal trends he feels are alarming and wants to reverse.
As more people have flocked to urban areas over the years, he said, many have stopped knowing or caring where their food comes from. And as people started moving away from a knowledge of the food system, big box stores like Walmart and Dollar General started popping up, especially in rural areas where smaller grocery stores are scarce or nonexistent. In Centre Hall, for example, the closest store selling groceries is a Dollar General.
“Some people living in these towns might see (a Dollar General or Walmart coming in) as something great ... but we see the side effects of the Walmart,” he said. “Small businesses get shaken.”
It’s ironic, he said, that some of the people who have the fewest amount of food options in their area might live right next to large farms that produce thousands of pounds of fresh beef a year.
“It’s gonna be really important that we figure out how ... to get more food options, fresher more healthful food options, in these rural areas. It’s a problem, and it’s not gonna get any easier,” he said.
Right now, Lesser said, he is working on assembling a team for Appalachian Food Works that he can compensate fairly. He is also in the midst of raising funds to get his nonprofit off the ground and run it sustainably, through a Gofundme campaign.
At first, Lesser and his team will focus on marketing local beef to local restaurants in the State College area. They are working with Rising Springs Meat Co. in Spring Mills to bring cuts of beef to interested restaurants, and they hope to expand that to pork and lamb. Eventually, Lesser said, they will move to include dairy, eggs and fresh and frozen produce.
Beef is the natural choice for a first product, said Lesser, because it’s available year-round, for the most part, and there are many beef farms in Centre County. In 2012, livestock sales made up 66 percent of total agricultural sales in Centre County, according to the Agriculture Census.
“So that’s the initial focus, is drumming up this business, trying to get the word out, trying to get the money, trying to get the team around us,” said Lesser.
Appalachian Food Works’ goal is to become fully operational in the next month or so. To promote interest in the local food movement, Lesser is encouraging people to ask their servers at restaurants which dishes on the menu are locally sourced, take a picture of that dish and post it to Instagram or Facebook with the hashtag #WhatsLocal.
“We want to make sure these restaurants know there is a desire to have locally sourced ingredients in our food,” said Lesser.