Putting Food to Work: How a Gainesville Organization is Keeping it Local

By Tracy Wright

Gainesville’s business scene is thriving, and one of the many features that have attracted people to the city is the priority to keep things local. Working Food is a non-profit organization that was developed to build a sustainable local food community “through collaboration, economic opportunity, education, and seed stewardship.”

Working Food grew out of three initiatives—Forage, Community School Gardens and Blue Oven Kitchens. Forage was a CSA (community supported agriculture) which allowed people to have direct access to local and fresh food from farms.  Blue Oven Kitchens was a community-owned kitchen that served as both a local kitchen incubator for local chefs and entrepreneurs and certified commercial kitchen that community members could rent to use professional grade equipment and provide food storage at an affordable rate.

The Farm to School to Work program is a community school garden, which is a vocational training program for high school students to allow them to have hands-on training with the hope of equipping them with employable skills.

Working Food was founded to bring all of these programs together for their main missions of kitchen, commerce and culture. The hope is that assisting local change agents—chefs, entrepreneurs, farmers, and community members looking to stay local and healthy— will have a ripple effect on the health of the community and keep local dollars here.

“We are at a really critical point in time for Working Food,” said Meg The Losen, vice president of the Working Food board and co-owner of First Magnitude Brewery. “We are merging our missions in order to serve our community more effectively. We want to offer more resources to local farmers, up our educational workshops for chefs and community members, partner farmers and chefs together and give retail and restaurants the ability to have more reliable access to local foods. If we help local businesses, they can help us to address the larger systemic issues.

Building Gainesville’s Kitchen

A major initiative set to launch soon is Working Food’s 4,000 square foot commercial grade kitchen where individuals can rent by the hour to make their own goods like jams and sauces. Secure, 24 hour a day, seven day a week access to the kitchen will be available. Cold/dry food storage, warehousing and available rental space will be offered. Training workshops will be available for culinary and food regulation skills as well as other services such as mentoring, technical assistance, low-cost legal and business management, and small business assistance programs.

“Many local chefs have restaurants but may have a bottleneck storage situation where they can’t keep local and fresh produce and foods,” said Anna Prizzia, chair of the Working Food board who also serves as the Campus Food Systems Coordinator for University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “We identified a need to have a physical and natural hub for food-related programs in our community. We want our members to come together to share best practices for an education and business approach that is robust and sustainable.”

Another key component will be to help local entrepreneurs identify capital and financing sources to expand or begin food-based businesses.

“We have many people locally who may be retired and have some form of capitol and want to invest in our community,” The Losen said. “They have an interest in using their money to invest it back into the local entrepreneurs who can create innovative, unique food-based businesses using locally grown and sourced food supplies and crops. At Working Food, we are trying to be the bridge between these local entrepreneurs and possible investors. As a local businessperson myself, I learned so much about finding and securing investors for an independent business. I hope I can share my knowledge and that others can pass along what they have learned too.

Working Food estimates that the kitchen will be fully operational by Summer 2018.

It All Starts with a Seed

“Dreams are the seeds of change. Nothing ever grows without a seed, and nothing ever changes without a dream.”- Debby Boone.

This may be the perfect way to encapsulate another key part of the Working Food program—the Southern Heritage Seed Collective. The Collective is a local seed hub where they curate a garden of local seeds that thrive in the local climate. Now in its 8th year, what started as a local seed hub has grown into a regional and biodiverse seed bank.

“The seed collective has grown by leaps and bounds,” said Prizzia. “Through the collective, we have been able to expand our relationships nationally and regionally with farmers. Our seed collective projects the biodiversity of food in our community.”

By sharing the knowledge of local seeds with its members, who comprise chefs, farmers and community members, the seeds that are planted thrive in North Central Florida and produce more viable crops and products.

Examples of events that the Seed Collective hosts are tomato bootcamps, a 3-hour workshop that shares the secrets of growing tomatoes in the south, basic maintenance and care and breeding your own variety of tomatoes!

Take a gander at the spring/summer 2018 seed catalog and you will find flowers and herbs like marigold and basil, fruits like watermelon, legumes like yams and buttersnap peas, other foods like cucumber, okra and exotic starches like golden bush scallop squash.

The Seed collective hosts a number of workshops, classes and events for its members.  For a minimum donation of $20 per season or $40 per garden, you will retain access to the seed collection. Working Food will also work with those who cannot afford to make the minimum donation.

Fostering the Next Generation of Local Foodies

Building on the success of the Farm to School to Work program, Working Food established Grow Hub, a new non-profit spin-off of farm to school, which provides employment opportunities for adults that age out of the Farm to School to Work program. These “alumni” tend the seed gardens and package and clean seeds for the collective.

Working Food also works with After School Science Club Gardens to encourage a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) curriculum while emphasizing and embracing different cultures.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines “food deserts” as areas lacking adequate amounts of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in underserved areas. While food deserts are often short on healthy food providers, they are heavy on local establishments that provide a wealth of processed foods that are known contributors to our nation’s obesity epidemic.

“Our hope is that working with youth programs will help foster a love for local food and bridge food deserts in our community,” Prizzia said. “When different arms of the community come together, like what we are doing at Working Food, we can pool resources to address these larger problems.”

A Passion for All Things Local Food

When you speak to Prizzia, it is clear that she has extreme passion for t the mission of Working Food. In fact, it was this passion that drew The Losen to become involved with the organization.

“As a local owner of First Magnitude, I was first interested in Working Food because of the kitchen incubator and saw the huge demand for these types of services for local businesses,” The Losen said. “But once I met Anna and spoke to her, she was so passionate about a true community food hub or center to unite all of these resources. These are projects that Anna lives and works in every day. That is why I decided to become more involved with the organization.”

For the past 5 years, Working Food has hosted Local Food Week, which is a weeklong celebration typically in February, of local food in our community. This event is celebrated at Farmers’ Markets around Gainesville, at special events in local restaurants and educational workshops across town.

Working Food has a staff of five employees, seven members on its board of directors and a fleet of volunteers to assist with its programs. Anyone with an interest can sign up to volunteer to work in the garden, staff events or help with craft tables with kids. The options are endless. Email gracy@workingfood.org to be added to weekly volunteer opportunity emails or send her more about your interests and ideas.

There are various affordable member options to have access to the resources of Working Food. An individual can join for $100 annually, family for $150 and organization for $250. Benefits include access to the local seed CSA, discounts on paid events and programs, access to commercial kitchen and 10 percent off event rental space.

“We are looking at future options of providing EBT (electronic benefit transfer for those who require federal assistance) access for future purchases of healthy and local foods,” Prizzia said.  “Our dream is to have a food center where everyone in our community has access to local, healthy and sustainable food, whether they purchase it or grow it themselves.”

To learn more about Working Food, visit their website at workingfood.org.

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