SPEARFISH | Sixteen months after forging a partnership between Black Hills State University, area retailers and restaurants, and local farmers, a program that seeks to create a closer connection between local food producers and consumers has blossomed into a fully functioning network.

The program known as Spearfish Local has tapped into a growing national "grow local, eat local" and "farm to table" vibe to create a symbiotic system that was recently awarded a $100,000 grant from the USDA’s Local Food Promotion Program.

Lauded for linking local agricultural producers with restaurants, retailers and diners, while also teaching elementary school students the origins of their food, the BHSU initiative is now set to expand. Next up: the organizers have set their sights on schools, hospitals, and nursing and retirement homes to reduce barriers to purchasing local food for their cafeterias.

“This means jobs for local farmers, money staying in the community and health-wise, it’s about the freshest food possible with the nutrients people need,” Katie Greer, assistant director of facility services and BHSU’s former sustainability coordinator, said last week. “This is about people who are passionate about local food.”

In June 2014, Spearfish Local initiated its efforts by connecting local food producers, predominantly located in Spearfish Valley, with local restaurants, retailers, ice cream makers, wineries and brew pubs, among others. In addition to letting cafes and restaurants tout local products on their menus, and giving retailers local products to sell in their stores, the program reduces transportation costs and greenhouse gas emissions while promoting healthy eating and pride in local food. It also helps keep local money circulating locally, Greer noted.

For example, the Bay Leaf Café has been a Spearfish dining destination for 23 years, and it was one of the first establishments to post a Spearfish Local sticker in its window. Its menu features locally raised lamb all year, as well as Spearfish-grown fruits and vegetables throughout the summer.

“We’ve supported the local truck farmers for years, so this was a natural fit,” said Bay Leaf co-owner French Bryan. “The producers out in Spearfish Valley were instrumental in this program and consumers are looking for locally grown products. It echoes the desire for a healthier lifestyle.”

The only downsides Bryan has identified were a lack of selection and slightly higher costs.

“This is not corporate agriculture,” Bryan said. “They don’t have a big selection, but we use what we get.”

A few blocks away at the hometown Lueder’s Food Center, Manager Mark Russell said local products including corn, barbecue sauce, mustard, honey, melons, squash and pumpkins, remained some of the most popular offerings in the grocery store.

“These are our neighbors and we just want to support them,” Russell said. “We even get people from outside the state who try something at their relative’s house and come in and want to buy these products. It’s a good thing as far as customers are concerned.”

From Iowa to Iceland and New York to New Zealand, “farm to table” programs have been a trendy hit, inviting travelers to sample local fare. But Greer said one of the most important components of Spearfish Local is its interaction between BHSU students and local elementary school students, many of whom have no idea how food miraculously appears on their plates.

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“One of our overall goals was to get youth to understand where their food comes from, because it just shows up on their plate,” she said. “But a farm just down the road is growing amazing things.”

Through a combination of role-playing, relay races, and visits to farms and gardens in different seasons, third and fourth graders at Creekside Elementary also explored healthy eating, the difference between processed food and whole food, and how food travels from the farm to the table, Greer explained.

For its part, the USDA is hoping Spearfish Local will break new ground with its $100,000 grant, create a local food hub, serve as a distributor, and connect local ag producers with local cafeteria managers who tend to buy in bulk. Previous studies conducted by BHSU revealed that only 1 percent of those cafeterias’ offerings are locally grown.

“Over the past six years, USDA has invested more than $11.8 billion in South Dakota,” said Arthur Neal, deputy administrator for transportation and marketing program for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. “In 2015, we continue to build on that investment to support the farmers, ranchers and growers who are driving the rural economy forward, carry out record conservation efforts, facilitate groundbreaking research, promote new markets for rural products, and provide a safe, affordable and nutritious food supply for South Dakota families.”

All told, the USDA marketing service will award more than $11.8 million for 160 projects across the country this year, Neal noted. This year in the state, grants were awarded to BHSU for its pilot program, as well as to South Dakota State University to launch "Dakota Fresh,” a project that will implement the first food hub in eastern South Dakota and include product distribution to restaurants, institutions and grocery outlets; grower/member certification; warehouse establishment and equipment purchasing; leasing a delivery vehicle; hiring staff; and implementing an online ordering/delivery system.

Greer said by connecting cafeterias with local food producers, Spearfish Local can instill confidence in growers that they will have a market for their products, which could lead to expanded farms and a diversity of offerings. In addition to solidifying partnerships with local producers and businesses, and fostering internships for BHSU students, Greer said Spearfish Local would be working with Rachel Headley of Cobblestone Science which will serve as a contractor to carry out project duties, including contracts and delivery of produce.

“This food hub seeks to break down barriers because we’ll serve as a local food distribution company,” she said. “This grant will take us to the next level and it will allow us to tap into a new market that hasn’t been explored yet. It will help build community resilience and it will help us say, `We can take care of ourselves.'”

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Northern Hills reporter for the Rapid City Journal.