For a few months now, I’ve mentioned various projects I’ve been working on but haven’t explained here exactly what they all are. As the time has been right for each one, I’ve shared them. This particular one that I’m about to share is probably the biggest one I’ve been working on, but have been the quietest about in this space.
You might not know I’m on the board of Market Central, the non-profit that works to support the Charlottesville City Market through our various programs. These programs include the Meet Yer Eats farm tour, the SNAP/Debit program as well as various culinary classes and demos. As a non-profit organization, some of our programming depends on grants. We had a sub grantee, Healthy Foods Coalition (HFC), who received funding through us for their Vinegar Hill Canning Co-op Project. That project sprung out of an idea hatched at a canning class sponsored by Market Central several years ago. The idea was to support local farmers by purchasing seconds from the market and turn it into a product that could be sold at market via canning. This business would create jobs, with an emphasis on empowering low income individuals (who were the original target of the founders of the group), while also generating additional exposure (and revenue) for area farmers. There was a core group of canners that could be found on Saturday mornings down at market, offering the products they were developing. The grant was to take the project to the next level, creating a canning facility as well as a training program.
Due to a series of circumstances, HFC had to drop the project, but there was still the question of the grant money Market Central was responsible for distributing. Thankfully, the grantor was willing to work with us so that with a few changes, we could carry out the grant. We were starting from scratch, with no core group, no signature products, not even a name.
Since early July, I’ve been working on how exactly would Market Central will go about carrying this grant out. I was initially tapped because of my canning and teaching experience, although I had first been involved as a consultant when the project initially started up several years ago. Over the last few years, I’ve followed the progress and been consulted upon occasion. (It has overlapped at times with my pickle idea, but now, here I am, up to elbows in both projects. Funny how that goes, huh?)
We started with a series of canning classes in early August, down at The Haven on Tuesdays. We began with the basics of canning tomatoes & peaches, then moved onto salsas and ketchup. Up next are pickles. There are plans for fermenting and pressure canning classes as we move forward. The classes are free, with students being encouraged to attend several. We are looking for people who are interested in starting their own food processing business, so while I’ve been teaching canning classes, I’ve also been helping to craft a program that will help people get the knowledge and certification required to launch their ideas. I’ve been talking to vendors at market who have navigated this process and are selling processed foods – like the Mad Hatter guys, Daniel the jam god, Holly of Whisper Hill Farm, Maynard at Shady Lane – making lists of others I want to talk to as well as talking to various agents from various state agencies, trying to navigate the sometimes overwhelming regulations. I’ve been lining up produce, reading even more than usual about canning, trying to develop some recipes and inspire ideas in others. I’ve looked at different kitchens around town, attempting to find a kitchen we can rent to work out of that’s certified (learning oh so much about what a rare commodity that is here) with enough space I deem workable. I’ve gotten feedback from students, had meetings with other board members and sat up in bed late at bouncing ideas off of my dear husband. Edie girl has been my taster, sampling various small batches of this and that being considered to make in class, hoping to find a product my group of canners can sell at market.
I’ve wanted to write about this project for some time now. It’s taken up a good bit of my time in the past months and is slated to continue to do so. It’s had some twists and turns with many hours spent discussing the path we should take. Inheriting a project that needs to start over from scratch definitely comes with some intimidating factors, but as we dug in and let it loose in the world, it’s been quite gratifying to watch it become its own thing, to reach a point where I could share it here with you all.
We still have quite a ways to go, but thanks to a dedicated group of folks that include canners, Market Central board members, employees and more, we know what direction we’re heading. And that is a most welcome and nice spot to be in.