April 21, 2024

Grant would build food processing facilities, benefit food shelves, farmers, and students

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“The planets are all aligning to get this done,” West Central Area ag instructor Eric Sawatzke reported to the school board last month. Sawatzke was talking about a new project he is spearheading, along with Ashby ag instructors Dustin Steenblock and Eleora DeMuth — the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Community Food Project.

Sawatzke, with the help of the West Central Initiative Fund (WCI), is applying for a $400,000 USDA grant to build a 36’ by 40’ food processing lab facilities at both WCA schools and Ashby. Partnering with the Ashby Ag Department, the schools will develop a year-round curriculum for career skills in the food processing industry. They will utilize current hydroponics systems, raised beds, apple orchards, the high tunnel at Ashby, and the greenhouse at WCA to teach production systems while growing food for the Elbow Lake and Hoffman-Kensington Food Shelves.

The main goal is to increase access to food shelf  purchases  of locally grown foods by providing a processing/packaging/storage facility for farmers in the area, reduce hunger in the area, as well as teach skills in the food processing industry to WCA and Ashby students.

“The facility will also process meat and become a change-agent in the meat processing bottleneck that was made clear during certain points early in the COVID-19 pandemic by teaching meat processing in both locations,” said Sawatzke, adding “This will provide an opportunity for farmers to process locally, donate a portion of their product to the food shelves, and sell a portion to the food shelf.”

The students will be trained in three different meat processing settings: Custom Exempt; Equal to USDA; and, Wildlife Exempt.

The West Central Initiative is acting as fiscal host, helping with the grant writing, and handling all the funds from the grant.

The grant, $125,000 in years one and two; $75,000 in years three and four, pays for half-time staff for years one and two of the four year grant to handle logistics of the initial start up; apply for certifications in meat inspection, HACCP, GAP, food safety, etc, and write any additional grants to support the project.

The grant will also pay for all costs associated with the construction of the two food processing labs, but does not include most of the equipment which will be funded through Perkins and other Ag Education grants.

Lakes County Service Cooperative is donating a 14’ by 10’ walk in cooler, a 20’ by 16’ walk in cooler, and a 2009 GMC 16 foot Thermo-king refrigerated truck.

Sawatzke said, once completed, the grant application will be reviewed by professionals who apply to become grant reviewers for the USDA.

“We anticipate the grants will be awarded this summer and we will start working with the schools to identify the best locations when we can move forward” Sawatzke said. “The plan is to be close to the growing facilities and Ag Ed departments.”

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