Standing inside the Food Enterprise Center in Viroqua on Monday afternoon, U.S. Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said she would like to see more regional food hubs like it.
Merrigan pointed to a recent National Grocers Association poll that showed that 85 percent of consumers said having locally-grown products was "a major factor in where they decided to shop."
"From the small food co-op and corner store to the Wal-Marts of the world, everybody is getting that this is the biggest food trend that we've seen in decades," Merrigan said. "There's money to be made, jobs to be grown and we should be all in it."
Merrigan, who was in the region over the weekend for Organic Valley's annual meeting in La Crosse, toured Viroqua's Food Enterprise Center, which was formerly an NCR plant. The plant closed in 2009 and 81 jobs were lost, but the facility was resurrected by the Vernon Economic Development Association and turned into shared space for food-related businesses. Currently there are three tenants, LuSa Organics, Keewaydin Organics and the Fifth Season Cooperative. Construction is underway for a commercial kitchen in the facility that start-up businesses can use to process food.
Merrigan said a team from the federal "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" Initiative is working nearly full time on developing food hubs. She said there are many different models for such facilities.
"It's a trend growing in the country," Merrigan said. "As we build up local regional food systems it's going to require a public investment in infrastructure."
The Food Enterprise Center in Viroqua is an ongoing $4.5 million project, which has received a $2 million federal grant for infrastructure improvements. More federal money went into the $2 million Gays Mills Community Commerce Center, which is a smaller-scale food hub that includes shared commercial cooler storage space and a commercial kitchen.
Merrigan said the hubs provide budding businesses the space they need to aggregate, process and prepare products for distribution.
After touring the Food Enterprise Center, Merrigan met privately with about 20 people as part of a White House Busniess Council meeting. More than 500 such meetings have been held nationwide in the last year. Feedback from the sessions is used by the Obama Administration as it examines policy. Merrigan said the council meetings were important to monitoring the economy as a whole.
"We seem to have turned the corner," Merrigan said. "We've seen some good job growth, but we still have a hill to climb."