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Local food hub could put Cleveland ahead of the pack

Marc Lefkowitz  |  06/08/18 @ 11:00am  |  Posted in Local food system

Almost a decade on from Northeast Ohio’s food study, the one that made waves because it contained a BHAG (big hairy audacious goal) to shift 25% of the food we eat to local, one of the needs identified—to concentrate the many, small, regional farmers, urban gardeners and flea and farmer’s market purveyors as an entity—is finally being met.

Food hubs could help supply catch up to demand, the study said. Many times a food hub operates as an aggregator and distributor for the small producer, helping them grow from boutique to larger enterprise. It sounded good, but who would take it on?

<br />Image from Oberlin Food Hub

“We were hearing farmers say, ‘we are struggling to grow our operations. We need aggregation, cold storage and to not spend 40% of our time driving food somewhere,” says Laura Adiletta, co-founder of Farm Fare, a Cleveland company that acts as a logistics manager for the half-a-dozen food hubs that have sprouted up, from Oberlin to Ashtabula. “The only way to make (local) work is to lighten the load.”

Much has happened since the local food study came out. We spoke to three of the entrepreneurs working in the local food industry on building up a network of food hubs that span Northern Ohio. They see the potential network effect that could support the local food economy.

“We’ve put a lot into building sophisticated tools,” says Adiletta, discussing the software platform they built to manage the complexities of matching buyers and sellers like farm-to-restaurant table.

Logistics, to match up a lettuce grower in Wooster with a restaurant in Cleveland, for instance, is part of the offering. Adiletta says the software can also act as a virtual marketplace for growers of a similar product. For example, Farm Fare customer Oberlin Food Hub is able to deliver locally grown apples to its customer, Maple Heights City Schools, today using a single orchard (Quarry Hill Orchard). But, with multiple food hubs operating in the region, "hub trading" could place apples from a second or third food hub in an order if need be.

Transportation is the other plank of Farm Fare’s business. The apples are trucked by Farm Fare to Maple Heights. They don’t own the trucks, instead, they rent them on a share economy principle that even a discounted fee is better than an empty or idle truck.

Adiletta’s partner, Cullen Naumoff, cut her teeth as founding manager of the Oberlin Food Hub, a spin off from Dr. David Orr’s Oberlin Project. Her successor, Jessica Reese, describes the food hub model.

“I look at Oberlin Food Hub as a connecting piece for growers and consumers. My work is to communicate with a set of growers weekly. They tell me what what’s ready to sell, problems they are having, and we talk about price. They rely on me to tell them who is getting what on price. We have a personal relationship. There’s an understanding of what’s happening on the farm. I download the information I get from the farmers to Farm Fare and make that available to anybody who has access to the Internet.

“Before, there was nobody with a voice for the farmer and offering local food at a competitive price,” she comments about the alignment of their social missions.

Operating on the urban end of the local food supply chain is the Cleveland Food Hub. An outgrowth of the Cleveland Culinary Launch & Kitchen (CCLK) where local companies like Souper Market and Cleveland Bagel plied their trade in built-to-suit commercial kitchens with a variety of storage and packing services, the Cleveland Food Hub recently launched a new food prep warehouse in Midtown Cleveland. CCLK Operations Manager and partner in the Food Hub, Zac Rheinberger, says the surge in demand for local food in Cleveland continues to fill spaces like his, with a particular emphasis on value-added products like salsas, sauerkraut, soups and snacks.

“In the food industry, ‘halo cities’ are where decisions like, ‘should I buy a local product, even if its 15% more expensive?’ typically leads to a purchase of local,” he said. “It’s a fairly new designation for Cleveland, and its helping our products grow and distribute farther from the city.”

For Reinberger, food security is a personal issue. He recalls growing up with his grandparents farm on 200 rolling acres.

“My grandfather grew up on a farm in Minnesota and had no idea the Great Depression was happening because his family had all they needed on the farm, and could support themselves.”

Now that the food hubs are working on the wholesale market, what’s missing, he says, is institutional buy in. “It would help the local economy and support regional farms if there were incentives for local food at schools and in the $20-30 million food budgets at some of the hospitals.”

Their $750,000 investment in kitchens, storage (cold and ambient), and loading docks speaks to the staying power of this second wave of local food.

“Prior to World War II, Cleveland was the hot house capital of the U.S.,” he says. “Cleveland is (again) becoming a national leader in this.”

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