When the COVID-19 pandemic began in mid-March, Northeast Indiana residents flocked to Facebook groups to support local restaurants
, growers, and business owners.
Now, a Fort Wayne-based organization is stepping up to provide a regularly updated and fully interactive Local Food Guide for the 11 counties of Northeast Indiana.
As Director of the Northeast Indiana Local Food Network
, Janet Katz watched as the pandemic disrupted local and national food systems this spring, causing empty shelves at grocery stores and skyrocketing food prices. In the midst of it all, she found herself wondering what her organization could do to help the situation.
Since its creation in 2015, the Local Food Network has supported the growth of a vibrant local food marketplace across the region by increasing visibility, connections, and economic opportunities for area growers, producers, and businesses.
So while Katz was working from home during the quarantine, she took on one of her organization’s long-awaited projects: Creating an interactive Local Food Guide
Launched on the Local Food Network’s website this week, the Local Food Guide provides a listing of more than 100 regional farmers, artisan food producers, farmers markets, food stores, restaurants, local organizations, and more all around the theme of local food.
Katz says the guide is free for producers and consumers alike, intended to help business owners identify opportunities in the regional marketplace and help consumers find the products and services they crave. To do this efficiently, the guide is searchable by food offerings, services, and individual counties within the region. It even has listings for services associated with food, like composting facilities, Katz says.
To be included in the guide, businesses and organizations must grow, buy, sell, use, and/or serve locally sourced food as well as strengthen the local food system across Northeast Indiana, a press release says. Katz plans to keep adding new listings to the resource in coming weeks as businesses reach out to her, or as she reaches out to them.
“We know this guide is incomplete, but we’ve got a good start,” she says. “We welcome and encourage other businesses and organizations, like community gardens, to reach out to us to be added to the list. You don’t have to sell or serve local food to be included; you just have to place an emphasis on supporting the food grown or raised on Northeast Indiana soil.”
To collect the listings, she’s been reaching out to farmers, producers, and business owners, either asking them to fill out forms online or filling out the information for them by phone.
“Many of our producers in Northeast Indiana are Amish, so they don’t do things online,” Katz says.
Hence, the Local Food Guide will be made available in an annual print version, as well, starting in 2021. The benefit of the online version is that it can be regularly updated as the seasons change and as farms and restaurants adapt to the pandemic, Katz explains.
Seeing that many farmers and restaurant owners were pressed for time even before COVID-19, she hopes that having a one-stop place to share updates with the public will give them an approachable way to keep consumers informed.
“So many people have been pivoting,” Katz says. “Local farmers are serving at different markets and trying to expand their online presence. We felt that creating a Local Food Guide would be a great resource for folks and keep our community connected in a simple way.”
Farmers like Tristan and Melissa Willard, owners of Woods Edge Family Farm
near Huntertown, are excited about the Local Food Guide’s potential to fill gaps in their advertising capabilities, too.
"As market gardeners, the bulk of our time, passion, and resources go into growing nutritious, high-quality produce,” the Willards say, in a press release. “In the midst of the busy growing season, it can be challenging to find the extra time for marketing or hunting out new connections. This Local Food Guide will be an invaluable resource to connect us with the broader community and help make what we love to do possible and sustainable."
Along with supporting farmers, one goal of the Local Food Network is to encourage a local food movement in Northeast Indiana that is robust, accessible, and affordable.
Although Indiana has long been known as a farm state, much of the state’s agriculture has been shifting away from diversified family farms toward Big Ag and commodity crops since the post-World War II era. While this shift has created efficiencies and economic opportunities in some ways, it has also weakened the state’s local food economy and its ability to feed itself. Only recently have more consumers started showing interest in knowing where their food comes from and seeking out a diverse range of crops grown by Indiana farmers.
“Local food is something that has really taken off in our region in the last five years,” Katz says. “We’ve seen a real driving force in our community lately. I think you see that in just the attendance at our farmers markets.”
But while there is growing momentum behind the movement in Northeast Indiana, the Hoosier state, as a whole, is about 15 years behind neighboring states like Michigan when it comes to supporting local food, Katz says. In fact, seeing this discrepancy is what first inspired her to earn her master’s degree in Sustainable Food Systems.
“I wanted to have a deeper understanding as to why Northeast Indiana is so far behind the curve on this,” she says.
In her studies, she learned that part of the reason is simply the nature of Indiana’s land, which is open and flat, making it ideal for growing commodity crops, which require large equipment. Yet, as the COVID-19 pandemic reveals the fragility of the current, highly outsourced food system in Indiana and beyond, a movement to localize more crops and food production in the state is underway.
Katz hopes the Local Food Guide will be a step in the right direction for Northeast Indiana to support the increased demand for local food, strengthening both the community and the economy with opportunities for connection.
“Our organization is taking a little piece of the puzzle and trying to promote the whole concept of eating locally, boosting the demand for local food, and supporting the local food supply,” Katz says. “We feel like this is one piece of the puzzle to connect everybody.”