Faces of the Network Podcast #4: Noel Bielaczyc, Value Chain Specialist, Center for Regional Food Systems

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Hosted by Farm to Institution Data Manager Zaire Parrotte, the Faces of the Network Podcast is a space to hear stories from Michigan champions, partners, and supporters who are leading the way in supplying, sourcing, and serving Michigan food, from the farm to the institution. In this fourth episode, we meet Noel Bielaczyc, Value Chain Specialist at the Center for Regional Food Systems.

June 28, 2022

Portrait of Noel Bielaczyc

“Your network is only as good or as useful as it is connected.” Noel Bielaczyc


Zaire Parrotte: Welcome to the fourth episode of Faces of the Network. This series is brought to you by the Michigan Farm to Institution Network (MFIN), which is coordinated by the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems and MSU Extension. My name is Zaire Parrotte, and I am the Farm to Institution Data Manager.

In this series, we will hear stories from Michigan champions, partners, and supporters who are leading the way in supplying, sourcing, and serving Michigan food, from the farm to the institution. In this episode, we will get to learn about Noel Bielaczyc. He is part of the MFIN Management Team. I’m going to ask him a few questions and ask him at the end if he had any final thoughts of his own.

What is your role in farm to institution work? How long have you been doing this work?

Noel Bielaczyc: Happy to be here, Zaire, and happy to talk with you! I'll just follow your lead here. As you said, my role with the [Michigan] Farm to Institution Network (MFIN) is one of the members of the MFIN management team, which means I'm part of this core team that helps plan and coordinate different events and resource development. My role within that management team is that I’m a Value Chain Specialist at the Center of Regional Food Systems. My work more broadly is focused on developing those supply chains for local and regional products, including meats and proteins, and that's sort of a key part of our farm to institution work at the Center for Regional Food Systems. That's a piece that I bring specifically to our management team. How long have I been doing that? I joined the Center for Regional Food System in 2014, and I became more closely involved with MFIN and joined the management team in, I believe, 2018. It's been going on for about 4 years which is kind of remarkable, feels like time flies!

Zaire Parrotte: That’s awesome!

What is most exciting to you about your farm to institution work?

Noel Bielaczyc: For me, farm to institution is all about this potential of having this market for local and regional foods that's consistent. When I say consistent, I mean a year-round demand. The volume of food being sourced and served in intuitions is really quite large. Traditionally, a lot of those foods have come from larger distributors and more global supply chains. So, it's always been really exciting to me to think about the potential that those dollars have to impact local and regional food systems when we are able to redirect some of those purchasing dollars into local, regional products. I feel like that potential has always been there, and I feel like every day that goes by we’re closer to moving the needle on institutional purchasing. That's really what excites me the most.

Zaire Parrotte: That’s great and awesome! So, the opposite question would be:

What is the biggest challenge you have faced when working with Michigan's meat supply chains?

Noel Bielaczyc: Meat supply chains are a tricky one. I think one of the big challenges we see for meat and protein, in particular, is just that the global food system really has advantages of scale. We don't have those same advantages in our small, regional processors and producers, so it is hard to compete on price with some of the larger national and global distribution networks for things like beef, pork, and chicken and those types of products. But I do think we have several tools to be more competitive, but one of the main things is just making the value of those local regional products clear. It's not always just about lowest price, it's about what other impacts that those food products can have in the communities where they're produced and the jobs that they can create, the environmental impacts of having shorter supply chains and more sustainably raised proteins and things like that. So even though it is a challenge to compete economically with some of those large supply chains, I think we offer a greater value per dollar on a lot of our regional products. That's sort of the flip side of that challenge.

Zaire Parrotte: That's good to acknowledge that we have issues, and we have challenges to overcome, but we also have tools to help us overcome that. Explaining the value of your product is also part of changing our food culture and our culture surrounding food and recognizing that it's not just about the price but also the value, the quality and how it impacts us on an individual basis and as a society. Thank you for sharing that!

What is one step you recommend people take if they want to succeed in farm to institution work?

Noel Bielaczyc: Well, I think one step, or one strategy is to just start with a focus. Choose one or a small number of products that you want to focus on trying to source locally and start there. Create some metrics for yourself so that you have goals that you can track on. I think folks often get intimidated when they start thinking about how I would replace this or that or all these different things. I think it's important to remember that the goal here is not necessarily to replace all the foods you get from a national or global supply chain; it's about looking for the things that work in your system that you can substitute in that have an impact both on the food you're serving and the populations who are eating it and the community that your institution is located in. That's what I would say, thinking strategically and focused and then you can expand from there.

Zaire Parrotte: You're the second person that I interviewed who said to start off small. [They said] start with an apple. Start with an ingredient, start with something that’s a good start. It’s about starting small, so like you say, we can expand over time, and it does take time. We’re not going to get to where we want to be as quickly as we think it would. Starting small I think is a really great step, thank you.

In your work, what one important lesson have you learned from working with partners like the Michigan Food Hub Learning and Innovation Network and the Livestock Work Group?

Noel Bielaczyc: I think one important lesson from some of the other projects that I've been involved in - I think it's sort of the key to networks in general- is just that you need those networks to make connections and to make these efforts really work. The lesson I have is that your network is only as good or as useful as it is connected. If your network is very limited and only involves certain types of businesses or organizations or only a certain region or people who are only in academia or something, you won't be able to accomplish as much as if your networks are truly representative of the communities you're working in. [This is] including everyone from the people growing the food, to the people selling the food, and processing the food to cooking the food and eating the food. Those are the networks where we see the most impact. I think that's one thing that the [Michigan] Farm to Institution Network does well and we continue to strive to do: to bring more people into that network to make it more effective and to really have a greater impact.

Zaire Parrotte: That's really good! It's definitely really important to have people from diverse occupational backgrounds and include especially community members because the change that we wish to see in the world starts in the community that we're in already. We want to include people of that community that will be part of that change and be part of whatever decision-making processes that happen within the network. You definitely hit the nail on that, that's very important to have diversity and inclusion. I'm not just talking about race, but I'm talking about everything. We need to put everybody into the conversation. Thank you for telling us your important lesson.

Can you share a memorable moment from a farm to institution project that you’ve worked on?

Noel at Jake's Country Meats
Photo Credit: Jude Barry

Noel Bielaczyc: One memory that jumped out when I was thinking about this question is we had a farm tour, I think, in 2015 or 2016. I think it was before I formally joined the management team for the [Michigan] Farm to Institution Network. But I was very involved in our Michigan Meat Network at the time, and so we thought it might make sense to invite some food service folks to tour a farm - a farm specifically that is known for producing pastured pork. We worked with a contact of mine and friend Daryn Pobanz, who works for Jake's Country Meats down in Cassopolis in southwest Michigan. We took a group of food service folks down there and Daryn and his crew put on an awesome farm tour. We got to ride around in a wagon behind a tractor and see the pigs out. They're farrowing spots out in the pasture, and they have a great sort of woodland silvo-pasture space with the pigs out in the woods. Just being able to hang out with folks and have them talking directly to the farmers, asking questions, and then we all got to have a great amazing picnic lunch under some trees on the farm. I thought [it was] just a lovely afternoon, but the learning that was taking place and the connections being made really sticks out as one of the best days we've had out doing the work. Just to be out in the field was pretty awesome, so that's a memory I like to share.

Zaire Parrotte: That sounds really nice! Do you think, because of the pandemic, those tours have been limited, and now that the world is starting to become a little bit more flexible with restrictions, do you think that more tours will happen in the future?

Noel Bielaczyc: Yeah, that was definitely one thing that we used to do quite a bit of prior to the pandemic. Certainly, had to put a pause on most of those sorts of in-person networking opportunities for a while. But I think at this point, we're coming back around to that and more people I think in the network are comfortable with the idea [of] something like a farm tour where we are outside. I think the general comfort level is there or is getting better.

Even though those kinds of events are awesome, I think what we've learned over the past couple of years is that it is a lot to ask people to drive all over the state to go to things. Travel is expensive, takes time, there are people that can't make it to those types of things simply because of those barriers. We've learned that we do need all kinds of different ways that people can engage in a network, not just in-person events. But likewise, I think there's the other side of that, a digital divide. Having everything on Zoom is also not perfect either because that comes with its own set of barriers. I think we will go back to farm tours. We will also probably go back to some more network in-person stuff, and we'll continue to use Zoom as well. But I think we as a network are thinking more about what the different opportunities for people are to engage in network and how do we create as many opportunities as possible for folks to engage in a way that's accessible and comfortable for them. It's a good question, Zaire, for sure.

Zaire Parrotte: I definitely noticed that one of the biggest barriers and challenges with a lot of farm to institution work was putting a pause on farm to institution work because of the pandemic. There are many farms and schools that have partnerships, but it wasn't really a priority to buy local food, it's just like ’let's just buy food in general because we're already having a shortage’ or ’we're having a shortage of supplies or staff’ or anything like that. That's why I asked that question, to see how that impacted on the tours. Thank you for sharing that.

What is your favorite recipe using local foods?

Noel Bielaczyc: Wow, that's a big question. I like to cook. It’s a hard question for me to answer because I have so many different answers. I don't know if I can say I have a favorite, but I was going to say the things that I find myself consistently doing - this is even in the middle of winter - I can always get local eggs and local potatoes and always whip up a really nice weekend breakfast for everybody with some hash browns and eggs or something like that. No recipe required for that kind of cooking. I'm also a baker and have a fondness for pies. Any kind of fruit that's in season, I just love turning that into a pie. Right now, we have an excellent rhubarb patch, and I'm super, super duper excited to see it popping up because strawberry rhubarb pie is one of my favorite spring treats. Make yourself a strawberry rhubarb pie if you haven’t, it’s where it’s at!

Zaire Parrotte: That’s awesome! I love how you emphasize just simple things that don't need a recipe. You're the third person that says something like that. [The first] two talked about just roasting vegetables.

Noel Bielaczyc: I do that too, yeah!

Zaire Parrotte: What additional spices or sauces would you put with the eggs and the hash browns?

Noel Bielaczyc: I love making kind of a hash. Even if you have those roasted veggies. Let's say you made roasted veggies to have one night. You take those roasted veggies and chop them up. Then you basically throw that in the skillet with some parboiled potatoes and salt and pepper and whatever fresh herbs to make sort of a root veggie hash. You're getting your vegetables and all in one go.

Zaire Parrotte: That sounds like a plan!

Noel Bielaczyc: Sneak the veggies in. I have kids, so you got to hide the veggies where you can, you know?

Zaire Parrotte: I know exactly what you mean! That concludes our interview with Noel Bielaczyc. Before we leave,

Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share?

Noel Bielaczyc: I don't have anything real earth shattering on the top of my head to share, but I just want to say thank you. This is a really cool project that you're working on, and I appreciate the opportunity to share some of my thoughts and some of what I'm working on with the [Michigan] Farm to Institution Network. I think it's a really exciting time to be in this work. I think there's a renewed interest and energy in making sure people can eat good food and that when institutions are thinking about buying food, they're thinking about more than just which food is the cheapest and easiest to deal with in the kitchen. I think there's a lot more thought about what is the real impact that those food purchases can have in the communities because it's real and it matters. Great to talk to you, Zaire. It's been fun!

Zaire Parrotte: Thank you so much for giving your time and sharing your experience with us!


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