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In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the U.P. Food Exchange (UPFE) is helping advance the local food movement by working with farmers, businesses and institutions to make obtaining and distributing food from U.P. farms easier, while increasing agriculture’s impact on the economy.

The U.P. Food Exchange

Created through a Regional Food Systems Grant from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the UPFE is a partnership between the Marquette Food Co-Op and Michigan State University (MSU) Extension in conjunction with the Western U.P. Health Department. The initiative aims to connect local food activity in the eastern, central and western regions of the Upper Peninsula, as well as coordinate efforts between the regions and food hubs, including the Eastern U.P. Food Hub, Central U.P. Food Hub and Western U.P. Food Hub.

“It’s tough to get people from across the U.P. together on a regular basis at one location,” says Michelle Walk, co-leader of the UPFE and community food systems educator for MSU Extension. “There are also some very different personalities within the regions, and there are different growing conditions and different levels of activity, so we thought it was really important to have that regional component.”

Michigan Food Hub [INFOGRAPHIC]

The UPFE works with farms of all sizes and types, and helps farmers connect with local markets and institutions, such as schools, restaurants and hospitals. In addition, the UPFE educates buyers and helps them use what is available each season. One major way the initiative connects farmers and buyers is through the Online Marketplace, where institutional food purchasers can buy local food directly from farmers on the Internet.

“My personal goal for the U.P. Food Exchange is for it to become so familiar to people that it’s the first place they turn when they’re looking for information related to local food,” says Natasha Lantz, UPFE co-lead and outreach director for the Marquette Food Co-Op. “We can connect people with the resources they’re seeking because we have so many varied partnerships with other businesses and organizations across the Upper Peninsula.”

Group GAP Pilot Study

Partially due to the fact that the UPFE works with several small farms, it was chosen to participate in a Group GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) Pilot Study in 2014 sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Wallace Center at Winrock International, which focuses on increasing public access to healthy, affordable foods. Although GAP certification is not required by the USDA, many buyers require it, and it can be difficult for small farms to navigate the certification process.

Through the pilot program, the UPFE helped a group of 10 farms by providing training, assessment and inspection of each farm prior to the USDA audit. The UPFE worked with each farm on a one-on-one basis, and of the original five groups in the pilot program, the UPFE is one of three that received certification during 2014.

“What we heard overwhelmingly from the small farms is that they couldn’t have done it without our help,” Walk says.

Moving forward, the UPFE plans to continue growing its presence in the Upper Peninsula, helping to make local food an even stronger part of the communities it works with.

“The future for the U.P. Food Exchange is very bright,” Lantz says. “We haven’t even started to scratch the surface – we’ve just been laying the groundwork.”

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