Southold Town is working with a national food industry consulting firm to find new ways to connect North Fork food producers with the area’s major businesses.
The firm, Karen Karp & Partners, is expected to explore ways to stimulate economic growth by encouraging local businesses and institutions, including schools and facilities like Eastern Long Island Hospital and Peconic Landing, to purchase more of the food they use from local sources.
The town’s economic development committee discussed in October the feasibility of hiring Karen Karp, the firm’s owner and a Southold resident, to host a meeting with local food growers early next year and write a grant to support the development of marketing and procurement strategies that would streamline the process of purchasing from local growers.
In addition, Ms. Karp’s firm would identify Southold businesses that grow, sell, process and/or distribute food, detail their operations and costs and compare that to the requirements and budgets of local food purchasers.
Councilman Bill Ruland, who’s also a Mattituck farmer, said he believes this type of survey is a first for the town and he’s looking forward to its findings.
“It’s exciting because anything we can do to bolster the local economy, especially year-round, is the right thing to do,” he said. “It’s the next step. You never can do enough to help with marketing.”
Committee member Sara Garretson, a retired Orient resident, has about 30 years’ experience in economic development with city government groups and nonprofit firms. She said that although the consulting arrangement is “still hatching” and no plans have been finalized, she believes the idea should move forward. The committee has identified food-related industries as one area it would like to see grow in Southold Town, she said.
“I knew Karen was a national-level consultant in the food industry and lived on Main Road,” Ms. Garretson said Monday, “so we invited her to a meeting and she really opened everyone’s eyes to what the possibilities are.
“It’s really good that we can be afforded the opportunity to think about ways we can improve the economy,” she added.
Ms. Karp, who moved to Southold in 1997, is a fourth-generation food entrepreneur and literally has roots in the East End’s agricultural community. In the 1930s, her family established Long Island’s first commercial manufacturer and distributor of fertilizer. Her father, Alan, brokered the country’s first transfer of development rights deal in the 1970s, according to her company’s website.
In an interview Tuesday, Ms. Karp said she’s excited about looking at ways to help the town expand opportunity for local businesses, create jobs and encourage healthier lifestyles.
Although it can be challenging to convince area businesses to purchase locally grown food, since it’s typically more expensive, Ms. Karp said she believes the first step toward addressing costs is to “look at the big picture.”
Ms. Karp pointed to her firm’s creation of a local procurement strategy for New York City’s public schools as one of its biggest successes. She said the city’s school system provides 900,000 meals daily and is the nation’s second largest food purchaser, just behind the U.S. Department of Defense.
Within a few years, she said, the procurement strategy supported the purchase of $5 million worth of food grown in New York and New Jersey for use in city schools — at prices at or below those charged by other suppliers.
Part of that success, she explained, involved improving communication and developing relationships with food providers.
“The public has really been coming together on this issue over the last 10 to 12 years and it’s really picking up steam now,” Ms. Karp said. “People don’t like change, but the world doesn’t function on simple and easy anymore.”
Eileen Solomon, spokeswoman for Eastern Long Island Hospital, said although the hospital does get its milk from Arshamomaque Dairy in Greenport and its current food supplier, J. Kings Food Service, buys produce from local farms, opportunities to increase local food purchasing would be welcomed.
Peconic Landing president and CEO Robert Syron agreed, saying he’s in favor of helping businesses find an easier way to purchase local food, especially since residents prefer North Fork-grown produce.
“Anything that’s good for the local economy Peconic Landing supports, because we love being a part of this community,” Mr. Syron said.
The town’s latest direction is an idea local schools are already working on.
Slow Food East End master farmer Lucy Senesac, who also works with Sang Lee Farms in Peconic, became the organization’s new liaison between North Fork school districts and local growers last October. She recently came across a federal “Farm to School” grant opportunity and assisted all Southold Town districts, as well as the Riverhead school district, with the joint application process.
When asked to comment on the town’s effort, Ms. Senesac said she believes it’s a good opportunity for growers and businesses to collaborate and share ideas.
“The more interest the better because making it more mainstream will make it easier for everyone,” she said. “The fact that the town is looking to do this will make the effort grow larger.”
Photo: Southold High School sophomore Mario Mengivar grabs his lunch of spicy chicken pizza from kitchen helper Fred Weber Tuesday morning. A consulting firm may look for new ways to bring local food to schools and businesses in Southold Town. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)