Story and photos by Bruce Shultz
LAFAYETTE – The nonprofit Acadiana Food Hub is the germination of a seed that grew in Zach McMath’s fertile imagination.
On this Wednesday evening, he’s receiving orders for customers using Waitr, the online food delivery service, for locally grown fruit and vegetables. Waitr is usually for ordering online from restaurants, but McMath convinced the company to deliver produce as well.
Farmers bring their product to the Food Hub’s location off University Avenue. When an order is placed, the items are bagged for Waitr drivers to pick up and deliver to customers.
“The idea is to give farmers more markets.”
Business isn’t brisk, with only a few orders trickling in, but McMath is ok with the low volume given that the service has only been available for 3 weeks.
“It’s pretty slow, but it’s all about getting the word out. It’s a marketing game and a social media game. It’s really about people knowing we’re out there.”
It’s only one of several endeavors being undertaken by the Acadiana Food Hub.
His family has owned a vending machine business, M&M Sales, so he has a close familiarity with the food trade. He recalls the inspiration for starting the Food Hub came when he was making smoothies at the farmer’s market at the Horse Farm in Lafayette, now being converted into a park.
He said one of his usual customers was then-Mayor Joey Durel, who remarked to him that Lafayette only had a two-day fresh food supply, and much of that food is trucked to Louisiana.
That got McMath thinking that untapped opportunities exists that could be filled by local growers.
The hub has several projects. It provides incubator kitchens for people with new food products to perfect their ideas. The Hub connects food growers with sellers, and it has persuaded a local agency, the Lafayette Economic Development Authority to award grants for individuals aiming at starting their own food businesses.
David Page received one of the $5,000 LEDA grants and he is using it to start an oyster mushroom business, something that McMath said is missing from the local food market. “There’s nobody servicing this area.”
Page has bought a shipping container that he plans to convert into a nursery. “I’m new to the agriculture world,” Page admits. “But I’d like to be the guy who can produce mushrooms steady, year-round. I think I’m stumbling across something I can base a career on.”
Kerry Kennedy said the Food Hub facilities enabled him to get his Basin Blend non-salt seasoning product on the market. “I was making it at home and I couldn’t sell it.”
Kennedy explained that food prep regulations require him to make his product in an approved commercial kitchen. Acadiana Food Hub came to the rescue with the approved kitchen for rent.
“Having a commercial kitchen enabled me to make it in larger batches, and under the required regulations,” Kennedy said.
Now his product is available throughout Lafayette at several groceries including Nunu, Fresh Pickin’s Produce and Little Veron’s. The website www.basinblend.com shows all sales outlets.
John Hackney of Wing Fingers said the Food Hub’s commercial kitchen provided approved preparation space when the business started as a food truck serving spiced chicken wings and burgers.
“There was no commercial kitchen in Lafayette for rent. They (Acadiana Food Hub) opened around the time we opened,” Hackney said. “We were their first customer. We wouldn’t have been able to run a food truck if it weren’t for them.”
Wing Fingers has since become a fixed restaurant at 1043 Johnston St. in Lafayette.
McMath wants to get fresh food to neighborhoods that no longer have groceries, and he sees the Food Hub’s role to connect those consumers with area food sources. “The whole thing is a decentralized food system, so it does harken back to your milkman.”
A big problem for food producers is complying with food and health code requirements, and the Food Hub helps with that process. Warehouse space also is available for budding companies to store equipment and inventory.
The Food Hub also helps growers and food start-ups get certified under the Good Agricultural Practices, or GAP, that is required by most buyers. A GAP audit can be quite costly, but McMath said the Food Hub has pooled producers to reduce the expense. The Food Hub also helps producers to comply with the federal Food Safety Modernization Act.
“We try to break down those barriers,” McMath said.
McMath is using his vending machine experience to place fresh vegetables in vending machines located at large corporations in Lafayette, such as Stuller Settings and CGI, for their employees, as well as public locations such as Girard Park.
The Food Hub has partnered with Helical Holdings, a Lafayette-based company that builds hydroponic greenhouse systems. The company’s first greenhouse was installed in Lafayette at a small Catholic school, John Paul the Great Academy. Students use the greenhouse to learn about growing food, and to start seedlings for their own vegetable garden.
Kohlie Frantzen started Helical Holdings with Dylan Ratigan, a former MSNBC host.
Frantzen is a Lafayette native who previously was a prosecutor in the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office. He returned to Lafayette after Hurricane Katrina with his wife, Elise, daughter of the former Crowley mayor, Isabella delaHoussaye.
Frantzen said the greenhouse system has many of the standardized systems found in the oilfield where his father, the late Dan Frantzen, a co-founder of Stone Oil Co.
Frantzen and Ratigan teamed with and the Patriots Farmers of America at Berryville, Virginia, setting up a greenhouse there to help veterans learn the business of growing food as a post-military career.
Frantzen said he originally had the idea of bringing Helical Outposts to Third World countries such as Haiti, but then he realized the facilities were needed just as much in many areas of the U.S.
The John Paul the Great greenhouse, run by Shawn Istre, produces leafy vegetables and tomatoes year-round. The roots of all the plants never touch soil. All nutrients are monitored to maintain the proper levels, and the plants are fed through an irrigation system.
Because the plants are not grown in soil, the produce cannot be sold as organic, even though no fungicides, insecticides or herbicides are used. Frantzen is fine with that because he doesn’t want soil to touch the plants. “I don’t ever want to be associated with soil.” He said soil-borne diseases cause problems for plants and people but the hydroponics system avoids that.
Gloves are required for anyone to touch a plant inside the greenhouse. All activities such as harvesting and feeding the plants, are carefully recorded. Grow lights are only used to get seedlings to a size for transplanting into the trays to grow into mature plants. A water filtration system handles 2,000 gallons of water a day.
A solar backup system is part of the Helical Outpost that has been designed to be manufactured as a complete hydroponic greenhouse system that will fit inside of a shipping container. When it arrives, the parts are assembled, 6-mil plastic sheeting covers the greenhouse frame, and the shipping container is used as a control center with Wi-Fi, satellite communications and an 11-kilowatt solar system.
A greenhouse like the one at the Lafayette school runs about $200,000, but Frantzen said that is a far cry from the cost of a farmer getting started in conventional row-crop agriculture. And the greenhouse can be relocated.
Istre, who had no agricultural background, said running the system is easy. Monitoring temperature and humidity is done with a metering system. Nutrient levels and water pH are carefully maintained.
Much of the process is following the protocol established by Helical Holdings, but that’s only part of the process of growing food with the system.
“Learning to talk to the plants is a different story,” said Istre. “The plants speak their own language.”
Istre said changes have to be made as seasons change. The greenhouse and hyddroponics system allows him to grow lettuce when the temperature is 100 degrees outside the greenhouse. Because the lettuce is harvested with roots intact, the leaves stay fresher longer.
Lettuce and tomatoes and other plants grown in Istre’s greenhouse are sold through the virtual grocery and delivered by Waitr, and several restaurants in town use its products including Saint Street Inn, Pamplona, Café Josephine, Bread and Circus and Social. Lafayette groceries offer their products, including Champagne’s, Breaux’s Mart and Sandra’s Grocery.
McMath hopes to have a Helical greenhouse as a proof-of-concept project to supply vegetables for eight Lafayette Parish public schools by the start of the coming school year.
As McMath sees it, the food infrastructure potential has been vibrant in Acadiana. Growers are producing food but they need more ways to get their food on consumer plates, some people want to be growers and don’t know where to start, and consumer demand for locally grown food is strong. The Food Hub is making those connections.
“It’s a chicken and egg situation, and I just built the cage,” McMath said.
You can read more about the Acadiana Food Hub on the website www.acadianafoodhub.com.