This spring, ioby and Eastern Market are partnering to present the Eastern Market Growing Communities Matching Grant Challenge. We’re offering 17 awesome local food entrepreneurs the chance to double all donations made to their projects on ioby’s website between now and April 3—dollar for dollar, up to $250 per donation, and up to $3,000 total. Here’s a closer look at one of the fabulous projects getting underway now.
“There’s nothing new about freezing fruits and veggies,” says Brandon Seng, founder of Farm to Freezer, a program that flash-freezes produce at peak ripeness for schools, institutions, and retailers to offer throughout the year. “People have long been putting up food grown in season for consumption in the wintertime. It’s the way we’re doing it that’s unique.”
Farm to Freezer, founded in Traverse City, partners with farmers across Michigan to procure high-quality produce that’s prepped and frozen in small batches by people with barriers to employment: many are returning from prison, recovering from addiction, or transitioning from homelessness; some have been out of the workforce for years. Farm to Freezer gives them the opportunity to learn marketable job skills (both physical and social) and healthy cooking basics, while helping to make the most of a tremendous local resource.
“Michigan is the number-one blueberry producer in the nation,” says Brandon. “We grow 78 percent of the nation’s tart cherries! Plus a significant amount of apples, peaches, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower—the list goes on. We’re really kind of a national leader when it comes to what you find on your dinner plate and in your smoothies.”
Of course, Michigan’s awesome produce is limited to a relatively short growing season: basically June through October. Farm to Freezer got its start about five years ago when Brandon was directing a school lunch program. He wanted to get more local produce on his menus, but while the farm season was on, school was out—hence the motivation to freeze.
“We do some really cool stuff with what I believe to be misunderstood veggies, like romanesco and kohlrabi,” Brandon says. “All of our produce bags are clear, so people can see the color and texture variation in what they’re eating. I’m most excited about our root vegetable medley—it’s just a beautiful kaleidoscope of colors.”
Farm to Freezer couples their produce offerings with extensive educational outreach to their consumers, so people know how best to prepare the food. Their packages also give simple instructions like, “Best roasted or grilled on high heat with the oil of your choice,” and they’ll soon be posting recipes online. “Eating whole foods simply is so easy and tastes great,” Brandon says. “That’s what I’m encouraging folks to do.”
His idea quickly attracted interest from from parents, colleagues, and other schools in the area, and he eventually partnered with Goodwill Industries to become a full-fledged workforce development program offering healthy produce throughout Northwest Michigan.
Now, “we want to grow the food system and share Michigan produce more widely,” Brandon says. Motor City is next on the list.
“Opening a location in Detroit will help us connect the regional food economies in the Southeast part of the state,” he explains. Currently, Farm to Freezer’s Traverse City location serves an area with a population around 400,000; when they open in Detroit, they’ll be able to market to the roughly six million consumers in the city’s metro area. He looks forward to making relationships with new farmers as well as new buyers.
He also looks forward to relocating. “Because we’re taking an old model and renewing it, it’s really fun and fitting to be moving into an institution like Eastern Market that has such a vibrant heritage in the state,” Brandon says. The building Farm to Freezer will be occupying has been vacant for 10 years. “I don’t want to be quiet about it coming back to life,” he says. “I want folks to know that we want to connect with the region in a new and exciting way. To that end, we want to stand out with artwork that speaks to our initiative.”
The $6,046 Farm to Freezer is raising on ioby will pay for the design and installation of a 20’ x 20’ banner that will hang outside their space on Mack Avenue. Brandon’s vision for it is a celebration of the beauty of agriculture.
“If you’re able to drive through any of these rural areas and see the cherry blossoms when they’re out, the fields of cauliflower in pretty rows with the sun on them… There’s such striking imagery here. I’m in love with it, and I want to share it in a powerful statement that speaks to who we are and what we’re about.”
As for the long-term future of Farm to Freezer, Brandon’s goals are clear. They’ll grow into their Eastern Market space, starting with five employees and increasing to 25 by their fifth year. “Michigan has a ton to offer the rest of the country by way of the food we produce,” he says. “We want to limit our sourcing to the state, but we hope to soon be utilizing the Detroit hub to serve sales channels into Toledo and Chicago, and hopefully Canada at some point.”
“I know we’re going to rock it,” he says. “We’re really fired up about it.”
Learn more about Farm to Freezer on their campaign page, and check out all the Eastern Market Growing Communities Matching Grant Challenge winners. If you see something that moves you, remember your supporting dollars go twice as far until April 3!