Food Hub Keeps Local Food in the Community

July 26, 2016

Amanda Nagy

Cucumbers and carrots on a wire shelf
Local produce distributed by the Oberlin Food Hub.
Photo credit: Dale Preston

Oberlin’s location offers the best of both worlds: a vibrant community in the heart of northeast Ohio’s agricultural production, and still within close proximity to a metropolitan city.

Oberlin is now poised to become a food hub, a venture of the Oberlin Project that opened for business in June. The Oberlin Food Hub sources agricultural products from small- to medium-sized farms in a seven-county region and provides a one-stop shop for wholesale buyers, keeping food and money in the region.

The Oberlin Project is a multiyear initiative launched by Oberlin College and the city of Oberlin. The project is being implemented with private partners to improve resilience and create a sustainable base for economic and community development. By integrating economic development, high-performance building, education, agriculture and forestry, arts and culture, public policy, renewable energy, environmental policy, and finance, the project seeks to reinforce the vitality and resilience of the larger whole.

The food hub is a vital piece of both local food and economic development, says Heather Adelman, assistant director of the Oberlin Project. “Northeast Ohio’s food value chain is well-developed with the exception of an efficient way to get high volumes of local food into local mouths.”

Adelman explains that food hubs exist across the United States, but they take on different forms. Oberlin’s operation follows the general model of other food hubs with the goal of maximizing the benefit it can provide to local growers and buyers. For small and midsized growers, the Oberlin Food Hub offers access to wholesale customers, such as restaurants, that wasn’t available before or was difficult to access in the past. On the flip side, wholesale buyers want local goods but may not have time to seek out farmers and keep track of receipts.

The food hub offers increased transparency and a shorter supply chain, says Cullen Naumoff, director of sustainable enterprise for the Oberlin Project. “Wholesale markets are buying in volume, but small farms need someone to bring their product to market in small volumes. We provide the access to local farms and take away the uncertainty of packing and pricing and being able to sell at the farmer’s market.”

Naumoff says most of the farms in the food hub are 50 acres or less. “Farmers have a specific technical expertise and very limited time. We can provide business development, and that’s very valuable for them. The other biggest benefit is being able to provide transportation. That is a huge deal for growers. We’re truly a one-stop shop.”

The food hub’s offerings include such products as eggs, grains and dry goods, a range of fruits, berries, vegetables, herbs, grass-fed meat, and value-added products such as honey, maple syrup, and jam, all of which are sourced from about a 60-mile radius throughout Lorain, Cuyahoga, Ashland, Erie, Huron, Medina, and Wayne counties.

For the moment, the hub’s wholesale customers are primarily restaurants in the urban density of Cleveland, as well as the food pantry at Oberlin Community Services. Naumoff says the hub is in talks with Oberlin community restaurants and others looking for high-quality and specialty products. In the future, the intent is to add K-12 school systems, universities, hospitals, and other food pantries as customers.

The next phase of the food hub is to build a shared-use commercial kitchen incubator that supports rural and urban food entrepreneurs looking to scale up their production. The kitchen has been strategically planned to support food prep and semi-processing necessary for school systems, as well as canning lines and flash-freezing capabilities that will preserve seasonal produce. The kitchen will also process “seconds—Grade B produce with minor blemishes—for sale to wholesale markets. Naumoff says the Oberlin Project has received funding for the kitchen and it is expected to be open this winter.

Naumoff points out that the Northeast Ohio region is fortunate to have the fresh water supply and topography to produce so much food. However, as climate conditions become unpredictable, the food hub will be an important asset for the community at large. “The more self-sustaining you can be, the better we will be prepared for any potential challenges that arise in the future.”

The food hub’s online ordering system opens each week at noon on Friday and closes at 9 p.m. on Sunday for deliveries the following Wednesday, Thursday, and or Friday. More information for buyers and growers can be found on the hub’s website.

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