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Food Hubs Connect Small Farmers To Communities In Need Of Produce

Jun 12, 2019
Originally published on June 22, 2019 5:53 pm

Between the growing warehouse district and the south side of Peoria, Illinois, sits 1312 SW Adams Street. The city-owned building looks like a great space for a haunted house: cracked paint, holes, shattered glass and pieces of drywall littering the staircases.

But officials and economic development groups have another idea. They put up booths and led tours of the building in late May, showing how it could be used to bring health services and healthy food to an area that’s been losing businesses like grocery stores and for years.

Organizers also envision it as a place for local farmers to team up and sell their food to places they might not otherwise provide a big enough bounty for.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food hub database shows 237 food hubs nationwide; there are eight in Illinois, though half are in Chicago. These help aggregate food from all kinds of farms to sell to commercial businesses or to public institutions like schools.

Tory Dahlhoff, an outreach and rural development coordinator for the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council, said strengthening the relationship between struggling rural areas and struggling urban areas could benefit both.

“My interest area, and the work I’m doing, is really around our regional food economy and how we could use that to drive economic development,” he said.

Dahlhoff said that while that the hub could serve lots of local businesses, he’d also want a grocery store in front or nearby so that the food would reach the local community, too.

There is proof food hubs work. City council members in Iowa City, Iowa, gave the organizing nonprofit, Field to Family, $45,000 to expand local operations. That doesn’t mean they’re without challenges, though, and many have closed in the first few years of operation.

Hurdles to clear

The pop-up event was meant to show what is possible in the space that looks broken down but is ideally located, according to Dahlhoff.

“Sometimes it’s hard to see through the blight within a building,” he said.

But bringing the dream into reality would take a lot of work, said Ross Black, Peoria’s community development director. That would include a group of invested buyers to purchase and upgrade the building with things like new heating and air conditioning and plumbing.

Still, Black said, the city specifically wants buyers who share their dream of creating a true community space that benefits the area.

There’s already a business across the street who’d be helped. Sous Chef is a grocery store that premakes meals, kind of like meal-box companies, but with more options and no subscription fee.

“We’re trying to get as much (food) as we can from as close as we can,” owner Katie Couri Rodolfi said, adding that more markets in the area could help the farmers that her store already partners with.

Dwayne Harris helps educate the community about urban farming through the nearby Well Farm at Voris Field. He’s trying to promote urban farming and black farming communities in the area; fewer than 2% of U.S. farmers are black.

“It’s about organizing the community and also organizing the network of black farmers, getting it bigger,” he said. “Assessing the needs of that community. And then coming to the economics.”

For that, a food hub could help, Harris said.

About 70 people showed up in Peoria, according to Sara Maillacheruvu, who works in community development for the City of Peoria. So far, there are no buyers. But she remains hopeful, saying the pop-up event and workshops they held in May are just the beginning.

Follow Madelyn on Twitter: @MadelynBeck8

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