CHC's a link in sustainable food chain

Every Tuesday, a miracle of modern ag marketing begins rolling through the doors of Memphis Tilth on Suzette, a short street of squat, brick buildings from the 1940’s that once houses a hive of auto-repair businesses.

A few residuals of the era remain but not a lick at 575 Suzette, where a well-swept concrete floor replaced the shop car lifts. A new walk-in cooler hums in the background. Farmers stride through the double-wide doors with bins of lettuces, ruby-stemmed chard, stupendously red strawberries and artisan greens. Their greetings and laughter hang in the air like song.

Tuesday afternoons, the combined produce from 10-15 or more producers begins going out the door in crisp brown bags. By Friday of each week, Bring It Food Hub has delivered about 200 bags to subscribers at some 20 pickup points, including Holy Communion.  

“It’s an additional market opportunity for the producers,” says Josh Conley, the Hub’s manager. “Especially for brand-building; they’re getting in the homes and kitchens of people who otherwise likely wouldn’t have their product.”

One is Emma Self, a 2001 St. Mary’s Episcopal School graduate, who is pleased to know Holy Communion families are getting her crops. As a middle-schooler, she won the “Biggest Hustler Award” on the church’s girls’ basketball team.

“I grow about 50 pounds of artisan greens a week,” Self said, holding up a plastic bag with the morning’s hand-harvested crop. Five years ago, she was raising a much smaller crop in the parking lot of Sweet Grass in Cooper-Young, where she waitressed part-time and had found an organic-farming ally in the restaurant’s owner. When a friend suggested she go at it in a bigger, cleaner way, she applied to the business incubator, Emerge Memphis on Tennessee Street. With the help of its investors, she became an urban, organic farmer, contributing her energy and resources to a movement that is also her lifestyle.

“It’s a small movement in Memphis, but I think it’s really important, and I want to be part of it,” she said.

Today, she raises her crops in the fourth-floor offices of Emerge Memphis in a sterile hydroponic environment with a recirculating water system.

“It’s all about sustainability,” she says.

Bring It has about 15 subscribers who pick their bags up every Wednesday at Holy Communion, including Bishop Don Johnson.

“One of the things I like is that the food did not have get shipped across the country,” said the Reverend Hester Mathes. “What I am buying is more fresh, and it didn’t require a lot of gas to get to us. I love that this supports sustainable and responsible farming in our community.

“The other thing I would say is it pushed our family to eat things we wouldn’t ordinarily buy at the grocery store. My hope is someday, if our children see us eating these foods, they will grow into that too. It does model for our children,” said Mathes, who offered a five-week Sunday morning class during Lent on stewardship of the earth and its resources.

“The Food Hub subscriptions does build on what we talked about,” Mathes said. “It’s one way of connecting to the earth, even though we are not farmers.”

It’s also a tangible way to exert market pressure, she said, against the often cheaper but less sustainable ways food is raised.

“It’s a way to combat the pressures the market places on industrial food.”

For Self, the reality is she was able to cut her prices in half because Bring It is a growing, reliable marketplace.

 “Before, I was having to rely on what the restaurants would take,” she said, scrunching her face into a frown.

Brandon Pugh from Delta Sol Farm in Proctor, Ark., raises organic vegetables and flowers for Bring It.

“They help a lot. They buy our produce at the asking price. You definitely can rely on them.”

That means more farmers are willing to grow organic produce, said Conley,

“If they know there’s going to be a market, they’re more eager to put a crop in the ground. We’re able to offer people a fresh product and get the product out of the field and distribute it,” he says. “We have a hard enough time selling our idea; imagine the farmer.”

Nothing proves that point better than the “deep winter” season Bring It offered for this first time this year.

“We were hoping to rustle up 30 or 40 subscriptions,” Conley said. “We outdid ourselves with 75.”

“These specialty crop growers in the area have a vulnerable business,” Conley said. “They are sort of subjected to the whims of the restaurants and the ebb and flow thereof. It’s difficult for them to really ever feel secure, and it’s nice for me to be on the others end of the phone when they call and say, ‘I have all this product and I don’t know if I can move it.’”

Bring It takes it all, moving it quickly to its commercial clients, including a research hospital client that takes daily shipments of local, organic produce for its cafeteria.

But Bring It also buys fading tomatoes and slightly past-prime greens and finds soup kitchens that can immediately use them. The producers get receipts for their donations.

“A grocery story in Boston has figured out a way to buy the slighted damaged product, past its prime but still good,” said the Reverend Dr. Noah Campbell, chairman of the Memphis Tilth board and founder of the Memphis Center for Food & Faith and a newly ordained Episcopal priest. “They buy it and price it appropriately and sell it in neighborhoods that don’t have good access to produce. That’s the goal for us. For now, we’re happy to give that farmer a donation letter. At this point, we are just trying to eliminate food waste.”

Memphis Tilth, which will celebrate its beginning with a benefit concert at Clayborn Temple on April 8, is the newly organized nonprofit umbrella for nearly a dozen organic food initiatives, from food policy to  programs to help the faithful affect food production.

“Other partners in the community decided it does not make sense to have five to seven separate nonprofits all working toward the same mission,” Campbell said. “That made partnering sort of obvious. That’s how we ended up with Memphis Tilth with the express purpose of housing the separate nonprofits. We now have one board of directors and one set of recording documents.”

One of the most tangible is Bring It, the food aggregator created in 2013 to give producers a central marketing point. It started as an incubation project of the Center for Food and Faith. Within a year, it was spun off and on its own.

“While it’s still on a small scale, the fresh produce aggregator is changing lives for producers, who used to have to find their own markets,” Campbell said.

Until this year, it offered bags of produce in the summer only. By offering bags all year, Bring It has a more stable cash flow and can manage its labor costs more effectively.

The organizations are now all under Tilth’s roof on Suzette. Tilth hired an executive director, plus a program manager and staff for each entity.

“It feels like we are properly professionalizing,” Campbell says. “We went from grassroots, and we don’t want to lose that, but we’re trying to act like a nonprofit that may be around in ten years.”

Posted by Jane Roberts at 2:09 PM
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