Local producers will soon have a virtual marketplace to sell their homegrown goods.
The Kenai Peninsula Food Hub Pilot Program will launch this spring with a dual purpose.
“Our goal is to increase access to local foods for the community and to offer new avenues of sales for our vendors,” said Robbi Mixon, local foods coordinator for Cook Inletkeeper, which is hosting the website.
Mixon and Heidi Chay, district manager for the Kenai Soil & Water Conservation District, will hold an informational, introductory meeting at 6:30 p.m. today in the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association building.
Mixon said the hub will act much like an online farmers market for producers and consumers in the Homer and Central Kenai Peninsula areas. Buyers will order their product, depending on what is available, but only during set times, which will be for about three days each week, she said.
“Our main concern is not customers, but having enough product to fill the demands, of both restaurants and consumers,” Mixon said.
Orders then must be picked up on a determined date, time and place, Mixon said. The hub will feature locally grown and harvested fish, shellfish, produce and non-food items, all dependent on what sellers want to post for sale, she said.
“The website allows farmers and other producers to upload photos and information about their particular farm and products, so shoppers know exactly who they are buying from,” Chay said. “It combines the convenience of on-line shopping with all the benefits of buying locally.”
Mixon said the idea of a food hub has been kicked around for years.
This fall, she and Chay attended a workshop in Anchorage hosted by the Wallace Center, a national organization working to improve food systems. Participants were taught how to develop online marketplaces, she said.
“We’ve done a great deal of research on food hubs around the country. Successes and failures have all been taken into account,” Mixon said. “Keeping things small-scale and simple seem to work best for long term sustainability.”
Chay said a goal of the Kenai Soil & Water Conservation District is to support the development of local agricultural infrastructure that improves the connection between producers and consumers.
Chay worked on a similar project in 2012. In the test run, only four farms and a dozen shoppers had access to the online food hub. She said the software being used on the new site is much improved from the old one.
In the long term, Mixon said projects like food hubs help address the future of food security on the Kenai Peninsula and in Alaska. Economically, it keeps revenue in the community, reduces the toll that shipping food over long distances take on the environment, strengthens support networks and increases access to resources, she said.
“Healthy farms equals healthy watersheds, equals healthy salmon,” Mixon said.
A number of other organizations helped develop the direction of the project including the Homer Soil & Water Conservation District, the Seldovia Village Tribe, Sustainable Homer and the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, Mixon said. A two-year grant was secured by Rachel Lord, the clean water program director of Cook Inletkeeper, to fund the non-profit startup, she said.
“It’s important to remember that this is a pilot project,” Mixon said. “We are learning as we go and are trying to take into account feedback from every sector the food hub covers — fishers, growers, crafters, customers, etc.”
The plan is to keep bringing people on board, before and after the launch, she said.
“We hope to have local restaurants give us feedback on items they’d like to see on the food hub,” Mixon said. “This, along with data collected during the first year of sales, could help producers plan their crops better.”
The event Wednesday will include software demonstrations, how buyers and sellers can register, costs and a period for gathering feedback from attendees, Mixon said. An informational meeting was already held in Homer, she said.
The website is slated to launch April 15 for sales in Homer, and April 20 for the first pickup day, Mixon said. A date has not been set yet to start up in Kenai, she said.
Reach Kelly Sullivan at email@example.com.