Food Safety Certification & Standard Operating Procedures for Your Hub Webinar

March 4, 2015 - Hannah Mellion

Hannah Mellion is the Program Director for Food System Enterprise at Farm Fresh RI, a non-profit growing the local food system in Rhode Island. She works with Farm Fresh’s aggregation and distribution programs, including Market Mobile and Veggie Box. Hannah has expertise in developing tools and resources for good handling practices (GHPs) and standard operating procedures (SOPs) for food hubs. Farm Fresh RI has moved over $7.5 million of local foods through its distribution programs since they began in 2009.

Please contact Noel Bielaczyc if you have any questions or would like to join to the MI Food Hub listserv and learn about more upcoming meetings, webinars, and workshops. 


Webinar Transcript:

Noel: Farm Fresh Rhode Island is a 501( c )3 not for profit founded in 2004. They began aggregating and distributing locally grown foods in 2009, PHC and since 2009 they moved over 7 1/2 million dollars in local foods through their distribution programs. Hannah is the program director for Food Systems Enterprise at Farm Fresh Rhode Island and she works with Farm Fresh's aggregation distribution programs including Market Mobile and Veggie Box. She's going to talk a bit more about. Hannah has been working a great deal on developing food safety programs for Farm Fresh Rhode Island including good handling practices and standard operating procedures. She's going to talk about her experiences working on those projects and also about some toolkits, which she's been working on for Food Hubs in that area. We had planned to have Hannah here in Michigan for this webinar, and we were looking forward to having her visit, but the weather out east has had other plans so unfortunately Hannah is stuck in Providence, but we're fortunate to have her joining us remotely through the webinar so we're really glad that this worked out and we're hoping to get her out to Michigan at some point, likely when there's not much of a chance of snow, so with that I'm going to hand over the mic to you Hannah and, again, if folks have questions feel free to enter those in the Chat Box and we will get to them as they come up, so thank you and here you go.

Hannah Mellion: Okay great, well thank you so much Noel and, yeah it's just been crazy weather. I don't know if anyone has been following the weather on the East Coast, but I was bummed that my flights got cancelled and but I'm very happy to be here and continue to be able to do some work with the Michigan Food Hub through the webinar today. So as Noel said I'll be talking about some food safety certification particularly talking about the Good Handling Practices webinar, so I'll start going through some slides and if you have any questions you can write them in on the Chat Box and we'll save some time at the end for questions. So today I'm going to a little introduction to Farm Fresh Rhode Island and our programs. I'm going to talk a little bit about the benefits and costs of third party certification. I'm going to do an overview of the Good Handling Practices audit. I'm going to talk a little bit about a toolkit that I've been putting together through the support of the Wallace Center and then I'm going to talk a little bit about standard operating practices because even if in your hub you're not ready to go for a third party audit, standard operating procedures are a great thing to start thinking about. So, I wanted to start off with a quote that I found on the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Services website about food hubs which says, "By offering a combination of production, aggregation, distribution and marketing services, food hubs make it possible for producers to gain entry into new and additional markets that would be difficult or impossible to access to their own." And I found this quote and I really liked it because I think that getting a third party certification really allows food hubs to do exactly this which is get farmers access to a market they wouldn't have otherwise. So, this is one of the main reasons that the food safety audit has been so great for us. So, and again, this is expanding markets for hubs and local farms. So one of the things through our experience with the audit was that we found that food safety certifications provide an opportunity for us to open up new marketplaces for our farmers through sales to institutions. So institutions being schools, hospitals, government or state agencies, universities or other workplaces that might require a third party certification. It provides potential to move a large volume of products and depending on how big the volume is might provide an opportunity to do preplanning with the farmers that you work with which can be a great benefit. And then one of the other things that a food safety audit does in my opinion, which I'll be talking about, a bit is it provides an opportunity for you to upgrade your facility with best practices regarding food safety and if we think about the Food Safety Modernization Act or FSMA that's coming up starting to get your hub in operation up to best practices is a great thing to do. 

So, again I'm from Farm Fresh Rhode Island. I built a little bit of an introduction, but again we're a 501( c )3. We were founded in 2004. Our mission is to grow a local food system that values the environment, health, and quality of life and farmers and eaters. We run a lot of different programs. We talk about our programs under to broad umbrellas. One is our Committee Access Programs, which involve farmer's markets, nutrition education, nutrition incentive programs and the other side is our Enterprise Programs, which includes Market Mobile and Veggie Box, which I'll talk about in a moment. But so we do a lot of different programs and we like to combine them and use our programs as best as possible to help serve local farmers and to serve eaters all around the state. So again, we run two main distribution programs. The first is called Market Mobile. Through Market Mobile we work with about 70 farmers and food producers from around Rhode Island, Mass, and Connecticut. We at Rhode Island are the smallest state, so we like to talk about local as southern New England and we also talk a lot about regional being the entire northeast. We work with about 200 different customers around primarily Rhode Island and the Boston area.

We're pretty lucky in that we have a lot of large urban areas within a short distance from our operation, so we have dense urban areas right around us, which is very helpful. So in our program, farmers set their own prices. We have an online ordering system. Farm name is preserved throughout the supply chain, so farm name is on the order form, it's on the invoice, it's on the packaging that transparency is very important to us and in our operation. In our operation, 18% of sales go to support the delivery and aggregation, so farmers build that 18% into their prices. Again, we have an online ordering system. It's a custom-built software platform and as of August of 2014 we have our USDA Good Handling Practice or GHP certification. And so this is a picture of our warehouse from a couple of years ago when we had lots of food. This is in our 55 cooler, so. We hold very little inventory in this program so all the food comes in and then goes out the next day and you can see we have tags, you can see where it might say Wishing Stone, we have tags for all of our farmers. We store everything in our warehouse by farm; makes a little different than other warehouses. So our second program is the Veggie Box Program and this is our Work State Wellness Program. It's also sometimes we call it a Multi-farm CSA. So again, we work with about 25 farmers from Rhode Island and Massachusetts and we deliver to about 80 worksites, YMCAs and other community centers around town. The program runs year round with weekly boxes from June through December and a biweekly option from January through June. We actually sent out boxes this morning. So we usually over the course of the year work with about 1500 different families from all around Rhode Island.

Through our surveys we found that many of the folks who participate in this program had had little interaction with the local food system before, so we find this to be a really important program for introducing you Rhode Islanders to local farms and local food and the local food system. Our boxes cost 25 dollars a week and they are packed in a bushel box and we send out an E-newsletter full of recipes, information about the farm, storage information, a lot of great information to help people eat more fruits and vegetables and that program has been around since about 2011. So looking at our hub's development, I pulled out a couple of key timeline pieces. So in 2009 we started our distribution program and our distribution programs really started because we had farms and chefs that we were working with coming to us and saying, "There's got to be an easier way for us to be able to connect and work together." So our answer was to see what we could do about that which was starting to build our hub and so that started in 2011, or sorry 2009. In 2011, we made our first cooler expansion and we hit 1 million in sales, which was a very exciting milestone for us. In 2013, we had our second cooler expansion so it's always interesting when you build a cooler and you think it's going to last for a certain amount of time and then you sometimes grow faster than you think, so we expanded our coolers in 2013 through the help of a loan. And then in 2014, we got our Good Handling Practices or GHP certification through the USDA.

We also became a Chartwells Approved Vendor and we also hit 2.1 million in sales for 2013 and we're aiming for 2.35 million for 2015 and you can see a picture over there on the left it shows a little bit of our growth trajectory over the last couple of years, so green is 2014. And if anyone has questions while we're going we'll leave time at the end, but if anyone has any questions please let know. So our experience again with the third party certification was really positive. It opened up new market channels for us. We actually started the process because we were approached by Chartwells' University Division who was interested in purchasing through us for their universities in the Boston area. And many of the farmers in our area were already GAP certified. So it's really important if you have a third party, food safety certification that you vendors are as well. We're really lucky in Rhode Island that we have a state run GAP Program, so our Cooperative Extension Programs help farmers get ready and achieve GAP certification, so that may be different area and I know that a couple of folks have been working on group GAP Projects, but so that was something that was a big benefit to us. We really feel that the process allowed us to professionalize our operation and refine our policies and procedures. We had a number of new staff on the team last year, so it was really a great opportunity too for our new staff and our existing staff to learn and make our operation better and really be clear about the best way to do everything and keeping food safety as a top priority. Definitely want to give a shout out to Cherry Capital Foods in Michigan who provided a lot of support through sharing documents and some other tracking materials, so it was a huge help to have Cherry Capital helps us in this project. And again, most of the things that we did in audit, felt like things that we should be doing anyways. So I wanted to introduce the audit.

So again, we did a USDA's GHP or Good Handling Practice Audit. The GHP audit is in the family of other audits including the GAP, the Good Agricultural Practices and the Good Manufacturing or the GMP program. So GAP is for the farms who are your suppliers and then the GMP would be for people who are working in a kitchen making value-added products. The Good Handling Practice is the audit specifically for food handlers, for food hubs, anyone who is distributing food. And so there are a number of other third party audit systems that include Primus, AIB, SQF, and GFSI so there are quite a number of other systems out there. So depending on what you're looking for when you're looking at your third party certification, depending on if you're approached by a customer, it's definitely important to know which audit you're going to look for and what the positives or the opportunities and challenges with the different audits. But we felt like the GAP audit or the Good Handling Practice Audit was the best one for us because many of our farms were GAP certified and it felt like the right fit for us. So to overview a little bit of what is covered in the Good Handling Practice or the GHP audit; if focuses on a number of key areas which include worker health and hygiene, food safety measures that include recalls, returns, allergens and contamination. It looks at the cleanliness of packing materials, your equipment, the entirety of your facility, the trucks both the cleanliness of the incoming trucks to your facility and the outgoing trucks. It looks at pest control measurements. It looks at refrigeration and temperature control and monitoring. It has a big section on preventative food defense and security and then it also looks at potable water and ice use in the facility. So there's a lot of different pieces and but those are the main focus areas.

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