The Food Hub Solution

What Happens When Community-Based Farms, Markets and Eateries Work Together?
When you hear about food deserts, the discussion usually concentrates on grocery stores—specifically, where they are located and what they are lacking.

It’s almost always a simplistic conversation. Overcoming food inequality and the obesity crisis will require a great deal more than just plopping a Save-a-Lot every few blocks. A grocery store no more “solves” malnutrition than an ATM solves poverty.

Hence, planners and community activists are beginning to think in terms of “food hubs” that go beyond a single retail outlet. This approach recognizes that city residents deserve a variety of health food options—as well as the skills and resources required to change lifelong habits of eating.

I recently visited a remarkable new food hub on the longsuffering east side of Cleveland. At first glance, CornUcopia Place looks like a conventional, if unusually attractive, shopping center. But its tenants suggest a nobler purpose. The center is anchored by a healthy café (no fries or sodas!) that also sells fresh produce by the pound. When I ate lunch there, the tables quickly filled with groups of seniors and professionals working in the neighborhood.

The café flows into a teaching kitchen and meeting room where the local community development corporation holds health screenings and cooking classes. There’s also a food preparation station for handling fresh produce from the neighborhood’s 22 community gardens. At the far end of the shopping center is a public library branch that carries cookbooks. In the parking lot is a “mobile market”—a refrigerated truck that delivers produce throughout the community. Behind the shopping center, there’s a just-planted orchard.

Any neighborhood would benefit from this sort of gastronomic village green. But it is particularly welcome in this part of the Cleveland, where the population has fallen dramatically while the poverty rate has soared. As of 2009, more than 62% of Kinsman residents lived below the poverty line.

Community residents insisted upon the need for improving food options in Kinsman. “This food hub is something residents told us they wanted,” explains Sherita Mullins, program manager with Burten, Bell, Carr, the local community development corporation. “We had more than 75 people attending each planning meeting. The residents even picked the café name and logo.”

The café opened in October 2012, so it will be a while before the food hub can be declared a success or failure. Says Jeffrey Sugalski, also of Burten, Bell, Carr: “We’re monitoring employment created by the local food and urban agriculture projects; patronage of the café, indoor market, and mobile market; and participation in cooking and healthy living programming.”