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Food Producers seek storefront location

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Oregon County Food Producers and Artisans Cooperative is eyeing vacant facilities such as the old Gum Motor building on the Alton square as a possible market site.
When hopes of an $800,000 grant to build a community produce center fell through, organizers of an Oregon County food producers' group quickly began searching other options.

Headed by Couch resident Rachel Luster, the group met at Juggbutt's Coffee House in Alton on Saturday, June 25, to hear the next possibility of establishing a local food cooperative and artisans' market. It was the third such meeting since the idea was conceived in April.

Luster said she had only learned of the USDA "Food Desert" grant in June, which has a July 11 application deadline. Luster said she sought help from others, and prepared a budget, mission statement and business plan for the grant, which addresses access to whole foods for low-income areas.

"I think I was dazzled by the grant amount with no match," Luster said.

Without having non-profit status, the group needed to apply through another entity, such as the Oregon County Commission.

Luster said the commission gave her a letter of support, but referred her to the South Central Ozarks Council of Government (SCOCOG), as the commission felt uncomfortable administering such a large grant.

The federal stimulus grant, which requires no matching funds or in-kind labor, would have been doled out over three years and could have been used for construction, salaries, equipment and supplies to build a food producers coop and community center.

SCOCOG also turned down Luster, and suggested she speak with the South Central Ozark Community Improvement Corporation (SCOSIC) board. In a split vote, that board, headed by former Oregon County Commissioner Leo Warren, also rejected Luster's proposal.

"Everything happens for a reason," Luster told the group. "I think it's a good idea now just to focus on the market, which was our original intent anyway."

Luster suggested the group find an existing building to buy, rent or lease, and form a cooperative of members to contribute equally toward expenses. The market would be operated as a for-profit business, simplifying paperwork.

The group also would apply for non-profit status, so that, if another grant opportunity arises, the group can apply, Luster said.

Those who attended the two-hour meeting offered suggestions of buildings that might be available. Those possibilities included the empty Indian Gas Station near Couch Schools, the former Ford showroom on the Alton square and a vacant store building on Highway 19 and Route A.

Juggbutt's owner Jerry Hackworth said he also is considering adding retail space behind his coffee house, which could be large enough for a market.

The group decided to have a community potluck dinner and swap meet in August at Juggbutt's to hear reports from group members about a site.

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