A $43,000 federal grant will allow northeast Indiana to study and strengthen the region’s food industry, officials announced Wednesday.
As envisioned, the Northeast Indiana Regional Food Network would connect farmers, food processors, regional food hubs, restaurants and others. The network would include farmers markets, food festivals, cooking classes and support for startup ventures.
The goal is to figure out what assets are available to build a network, what gaps exist and what can be done to fill those holes, said Tim Ehlerding, outgoing executive director of Wells County Economic Development.
The network would work with existing efforts, such as Indiana Grown, which encourage grocery stores and shoppers to choose food grown in Indiana. According to Indiana Grown, Hoosiers spend $16 billion a year on food, but less than 10 percent of that food is grown on one of the state’s 60,000 farms.
"It truly could be a transformational economic engine for us," Ehlerding said. "We’ve got the natural resources. We’ve got the farmland."
Illinois-based consulting firm Manheim Solutions will prepare the strategic plan, said Ehlerding, whose last day in the position is Friday.
His replacement, who hasn’t been named, is expected to carry on with the project. The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership and LaGrange County Economic Development Corp. are also taking leadership roles.
Ehlerding expects the consultants to compile research for the first three months before organizing meetings to seek public input. His office was instrumental in securing the U.S. Department of Agriculture grant.
The consultants’ final report could derail at least one project that’s been talked about for months: construction of a $5.5 million Bluffton Food Innovation Center.
Although the investment is included in northeast Indiana’s bid for a Regional Cities Initiative grant, its future depends on whether the study verifies a need for it, Ehlerding said. The plans were initiated based on anecdotal evidence that such an innovation center would benefit both existing and new food processing companies, he said.
"(The study) may say that’s not the right thing to do," he said. "And I’d rather find that out now."
Assuming data does support the need, the formal study will help northeast Indiana officials make a stronger case if they seek another, larger grant from the Agriculture Department toward an innovation center’s construction, Ehlerding said.
Philip Lehmkuhler, Indiana director for the USDA Rural Development program, said the grant announced Wednesday represents an ongoing federal effort to "create economic and job opportunities in rural areas by ensuring that strategic investments are made in our small towns and cities."