The big chill: Why city and county are betting on a flash-freezing facility to grow the local food movement

The Local Food Hub is teaming up with the city and county to develop a business plan for a flash-freezing facility in Central Virginia. Photo: Elli Williams The Local Food Hub is teaming up with the city and county to develop a business plan for a flash-freezing facility in Central Virginia. Photo: Elli Williams

 Ever check to see where your frozen veggies from Whole Foods were grown? In the future, the back of that package of peas could read “Albemarle County.” 

Charlottesville and Albemarle have received a joint Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development (AFID) grant from the state to craft a business plan for a flash-freezing facility, and those involved in studying the possibility say it could be a game-changer for the local food movement.

The AFID grants are intended to give local governments a leg up when it comes to studying how to grow their farming and forestry industries. The idea of a freezing facility was already kicking around Charlottesville and Albemarle, thanks to a preliminary feasibility study by the Jefferson Area Board for Aging (JABA), which wanted to explore freezing pre-cooked meals for seniors. It also piqued the interest of the Local Food Hub, a nonprofit created in 2009 to connect small local farms to big local markets.

“We’ve got a huge agricultural economy here, but much of what is produced in Virginia goes out of Virginia, and isn’t consumed here,” said Local Food Hub Executive Director Kristen Suokko, but a freezing facility could change that.

Some of the barriers that block big consumers—schools, hospitals—from relying more on local food are logistical, explained Charlottesville Director of Economic Development Chris Engel, who spearheaded the AFID grant application process. 

“When fruits and vegetables are coming in, they’re coming in all at one time, and there’s a lot of waste,” Engel said. Flash-freezing crops straight out of the fields would mean a steadier flow of produce and a more stable supply chain, which could open up new market channels for local growers. 

“There’s really no facility anywhere in central Virginia, or really Virginia at all, that does this,” Suokko said.

Enter the state money. City and county teamed up and created a committee to apply, and landed the $35,000 matching grant to develop a business plan. There are lots of questions to answer: What kind of demand exists, and is there enough supply to meet it? Could existing infrastructure—the old ConAgra plant in Crozet, for instance—be harnessed to house such a facility? Would grocery store chains get onboard as buyers? What about local schools? 

And then, of course, “the trick is to make it work from a financial perspective,” said Engel. The committee will be studying lots of structural possibilities, from a nonprofit partnership to a for-profit corporation. Whatever the eventual ownership setup, Engel sees potential.

“I don’t use this phrase very often, but it’s kind of a win-win-win,” he said. “We have people who are low-skilled and unemployed who could be put to work in these types of jobs. In the county, they have farms and farmers that could potentially grow and produce more, which would incrementally add jobs. There would be local benefit to institutions such as UVA or JABA or the local schools, which would benefit from higher-quality, locally sourced food. There’s something in it for everyone involved.”

The grant and the business plan that will grow out of it are just a first step. “We don’t know what the end result is going to be,” said Suokko. But it could ultimately make a huge difference in the effort to get local food onto local plates. “It’s very exciting,” she said.