Grow Local, Process Local: A Vision for Central Virginia

By Allie Hill, for the Central Virginia Cannery and Food Processing Center

Across the nation the "grow local, eat local" movement is taking hold. Throughout our region, farmers' markets flourish; community gardens are springing up; schools feature one or two days of local foods on the menu; and many in need receive donations of surplus fruits and vegetables. But once the crops are in, an enormous void - and a great opportunity - remains.

There is no place in central Virginia for farmers, small businesses or residents to process locally grown produce, fruit and meat on a large scale. Our vision is to create a food-processing center in central Virginia where food and food-related products, including meat and poultry, can be appropriately processed safely and affordably.

Currently, very little of what is grown in Virginia is processed for year-round consumption or for daily household use. For example, Virginia produces more tomatoes than almost any other state, yet there is not a pasta sauce available using local tomatoes. Other examples include peanut butter, oils, legumes, crackers, dried herbs, and frozen corn. All of the commodities for these products can be grown successfully in Virginia's fertile soils. A goal of a complete grocery list sourced from local foods is possible.

Building and operating a food processing facility in central Virginia is the mission of the Central Virginia Cannery and Food Processing Center. This will be a full-service food-processing facility that is certified by both the FDA and the USDA. Equipment would be available for canning, baking, dehydrating, vacuum packing, extrusion, and flash freezing. Food businesses and chefs would be able to produce specialty products for their markets. Local residents eager to eat nutritious, healthy foods would be able to use the facility to process for their personal use. Community food pantry shelves across the region would be filled with summer's bounty. Our schools could have locally grown, carefully preserved food to meet their needs throughout the school year. A commercial kitchen with fully trained staff would also be available for hire, providing help or co-packing services.

This project will extend the period during which nutritious food, grown locally by Virginia's farmers, is available to all. During the growing season, farmers can preserve the bounty by using the facility themselves or having trained staff process or co-pack for them for a fee; sell excess produce and meat to those entrepreneurs who wish to use it in value-added products for resale; or sell produce seconds to the center, where trained staff can create product lines for resale to support the center. We also see a role for the center in linking local farmers to those making value-added products for resale. We hope these options will allow farmers and growers to supplement their food sales, make farming more economically viable as well as encourage new farmers to join their ranks.

We are currently surveying farmers, value-added food producers, schools, food-related non-profit organizations and food banks, local governments and interested parties to assess the demand and availability of food for this facility. If you would like to receive project updates, volunteer your time and talents, or take our survey as a potential user of the facility, let us know. We can be reached at BountifulBlueRidge@live.com.

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