Each day, Allyson Mrachek is responsible for feeding 5,500 students across Fayetteville Public Schools.
As the district’s director of child nutrition, Allyson walks a daily tightrope of affordability, nutrition and taste – creating nourishing recipes that children will love. “We try to keep it fresh and colorful,” she says, “and because food retains more nutrients closer to where it’s harvested, we spend nearly 30% of our budget on local producers.”
Thanks to a major, newly announced food hub for Northwest Arkansas, Allyson and other major purchasers in the region will soon be able to source even more locally grown food from the region’s farmers.
When completed, Market Center of the Ozarks will be a 45,000-square-foot facility in downtown Springdale that serves the needs of the region’s farmers, food entrepreneurs and food buyers, all under one roof.
The new location will provide space for farmers to aggregate, process and certify crops for wholesale. It will feature office space, loading docks, kitchen and processing equipment and cold and dry storage that allows farmers to add value to the lifespan of their crops. These amenities will increase farmers’ ability to offer fresh-cut and frozen produce for school lunches and hospital food service.
For food entrepreneurs and local chefs, the space will also include certified commercial kitchens and co-working spaces for technical assistance, culinary education and community gathering, providing a 360-degree opportunity for all who grow, serve and eat in Northwest Arkansas.
The Walton Family Foundation is supporting the development of Market Center of the Ozarks as part of its Northwest Arkansas Food Systems initiative, which has a mission to help the region become a national model for locally grown food.
Building on the region’s rich agricultural history, Market Center of the Ozarks will help local farmers meet growing consumer demand for local produce and relieve pressure on a stressed food supply chain. It will contribute to a virtuous cycle that benefits local farmers and chefs who work hard to support their families while feeding their community.
“I’m so excited for the Center to open,” says Allyson. “A lot of our students come from farming families, and resources like this adds value to what they can sell and what we as large buyers can purchase.”
She says greater access to local, frozen produce not only expands the variety of what her schools can serve students, but extends the duration of time it is available.
Agriculture is already the number one industry in Arkansas, one that employs 1 in 6 of the state’s residents, says Karen Reynolds, who runs ‘Arkansas Grown’ programming for the state’s department of agriculture.
“I’m not aware of any concept in the state at this time that is as comprehensively helpful to farmers as Market Center of the Ozarks,” says Karen. “Not only do you have aggregation facilities with processing and packaging, you have a commissary kitchen so that food entrepreneurs can take food fresh from the field to a dinner plate all in one place. And once farmers deliver their product, they get to go back to doing what they do best.”
As part of her work, Karen supports local farmers as they work to meet this increasing consumer demand for local produce.
“There is a gap in the process from the raw product in the field to “wholesale ready.” Many farmers want to scale up, but they don’t have the capital or time. Often, they don’t know where to turn,” she says.
I love the idea that the Market Center will connect chefs directly with farmers.
One food entrepreneur looking forward to Market Center of the Ozarks’ opening is Judy Tatios, a chef from Orange County, California, who now resides in Springdale, where the center will be located. Judy plans to open a first-of-its-kind Marshallese/Island food truck concept, “Street Iakwe, Eulala - Island Comfort" in 2022.
“Finding good, fresh ingredients can be really time consuming, and I love the idea that the Market Center will connect chefs directly with farmers, and provide access to most things I will need to run my truck,” she says.
“Catering job, events, and pop-ups will be more convenient because of the accessible resources this facility will provide. As an entrepreneur like me who is just starting up, I am grateful to have access to this space. It will definitely help this community grow their businesses.”
Springdale is already home to the most diverse population in the region, with large Hispanic, Hmong and Marshallese communities, eager to share their food and culture with their neighbors.
When Market Center of the Ozarks opens in early 2024, Judy can see herself, and other local food entrepreneurs, flocking to the space.
“When I am ready to expand, I'll know where to go. And I’ll be able to stand by my food proudly, knowing it’s sourced from local farmers. This facility will have a boomerang effect - blessing the businesses as the businesses will bless it. I’m excited to see what it will bring to the table.”