The process to keep Sophiasburgh Central School open and viable has entered its crucial germination stage.
Handed a reprieve from closure by the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board at the conclusion of the Accommodation Review Committee process late last spring, the County Food Hub steering committee has been hard at work developing a plan to ensure the school just north of the village of Demorestville stays open and is transformed into community service hub that will be specialized for commercial food service preparation and food education.
Planners and organizers gathered with interested parties on Wednesday evening at the Sophiasburgh Town Hall to unveil proposals, discuss plans and offer visions of what the school will look like should their plans fall into place.
Now entitled The County Food Hub project, organizers are leading the charge to remodel a southwest wing of the elementary school and turn it into commercial kitchen space that would be rented or leased to businesses and community groups in the public in need of that type of resource- be it caterers or canners.
The concept would have multiple benefits for a myriad of parties.
First, it would right-size the school and give the appropriate critical mass for number of pupils versus the amount of learning space which is a concern for the board in the age of declining enrolment.
The excess space would become a potential valued community resource as organizers are learning that large commercial kitchen space with regular Health Unit inspection certificates are rare and valuable in this region.
Finally, the curriculum at the school would be enhanced with special experiential learning opportunities available to students at Sophiasburgh in the area of food and culinary arts, much in the same way some of the board’s schools offer French immersion or enrichment classes at various designated institutions.
What began as a “Save Our School”campaign has morphed into a potential provincial strategy that could see other half-filled rural schools use excess space in a public-private partnership to both answer community needs and enhance curriculum.
“Our vision is very clear,” County Food Hub steering committee member Mike Farrell said Wednesday night. “We want to provide Ontario with a model approach to strengthen rural education that makes use of surplus school space while still active and to provide educational opportunities to students and social and economic opportunities for the community- it’s not about saving the school. That’s how it started but now it’s something much bigger.”
Among the goals set out by the committee are to develop an innovative curriculum to encourage a lifetime commitment to healthy eating, food sustainability, and gain an appreciation to the opportunities present in the local food industry.
The County Food Hub hopes to foster multiple healthy food product development opportunities, be a support for healthy food distribution and provide a space and resources for food service training.
Farrell explained the group has submitted a formal letter of intent with the board and under the structure proposed, the school board would serve as landlord of the space while the Hub group would be the tenant that would, in turn, sub let and rent space to businesses and groups.
The Phase 1 budgeting estimate to get the project up and running by January 2019 is $905,000 which will be generated through municipal, provincial and federal grants and fundraising.
Food insecurity appears to be among the hot topic buzz words surrounding this concept and steering committee member Todd Foster spoke to this issue and how the Food Hub could play a role in eradicating this prevalent concern.
Like many other county natives, Foster said he grew up with access to food-whether it be preserves canned at home or beef and pork grown at the family farm and stored in the freezer.
He figured food insecurity was something that was an issue in urban areas.
“But you start diving into this and really look at what’s going on in our community. Families are walking out of grocery stores with boxes of Kraft Dinner,” Foster said, pointing to the ills of processed, low cost/less nutritious foods that are widely available in this and any other community.
“Unfortunately, people don’t know how to prepare food and it’s become a life cycle if you are going to change that, you have to start educating people how to prepare food and that’s part of our vision. Not only with adults through cooking classes but right in the curriculum at the elementary school level so kids see there’s more to life than Kraft Dinner,” Foster added.
In its infancy, the community hub concept had a number of different aspects including a potential early years centre and a branch of the Prince Edward County Library.
But it appears the steering committee has decided to push towards a shared commercial kitchen space as the overall driver for project.
The need for a high-end commercial kitchen space and interest from a number of different businesses and community groups that were looking beyond town halls and municipal installations became apparent with some research.
“The food sector is the great opportunity,” Farrell explained. “Prince Edward County and the Bay of Quinte region is the middle of a rural renaissance of ag-innovation and value-added food.”
Turning raw goods into purees, spices, fermentation and other food products is a burgeoning industry and can be mentioned in the same breath as craft breweries and wineries.
But there’s a great-yet-unmet need for commercial kitchen incubation spaces in Prince Edward County.
The committee looked at the commercial kitchen space at Highline Hall in Wellington and found the space was booked solid.
Other town halls don’t have the capacity that commercial users are looking for and might not have the certifications that would allow marketing at food markets or grocery stores.
In order to get a handle on what other communities are doing to offer commercial kitchen space, members of the steering group visited the 15,000 square foot Ontario Agri-Food Venture Centre in Colborne.
Operated as a not-for-profit, small-batch food processing facility that offers wash, cut, quick chill, flash freeze, cold/frozen/dry storage space as well as business incubation and training facilities, the steering committee has borrowed heavily from the operation in Cramahe Township.
“They were slow to start to in their first year but in their second year they really took off and now it’s impossible to get a space at that food hub,” Farrell said.
“That particular kitchen we’ve toured, and it’s a fantastic facility, they are going to an evening shift because there is such a high demand for it. They can’t accommodate everyone in a single eight hour shift,” Foster added.
Alex Currie of Pyramid Ferments explained how precious and rare health inspected commercial kitchen space is in Prince Edward County.
Producers of highly regarded sauerkraut and kimchi, Currie explained how his business had simply outgrown its humble beginning by leaps and bounds in the last five years but that building a full scale commercial kitchen was not an option.
” Personally, as a small business owner and a parent of a daughter that will hopefully be going to Sophiasburgh one day, we need this. This is pretty important to me and a lot more businesses like myself that produce food and sell it at a grocery store level that require health inspector certification. We are getting to a level where we need provincial certification and the education opportunities for us through the County Food Hub are huge,” Currie said. “This is an opportunity for mentorship among us and having this space there….it’s concrete, you know it’s there and you can depend on it.”
The steering committee will be announcing its fundraising initiatives in the coming days.