Since its formation in 2015, the Food Hub has been changing food systems in the Worcester, Massachusetts area. Its programs assist local farmers in delivering fresh foods to institutions/business and provide space for culinary entrepreneurs to thrive in its kitchen incubator.
With a small but mighty crew, the Worcester Regional Food Hub is improving local food access in the region by building a network of farms, businesses and food entrepreneurs to create synergetic relationships and enrich the communities they serve. When all aspects of the Food Hub’s businesses come together, the magic of the organization really shines.
“We’ve created a whole circle of products that are sourced from our farms, made in our kitchen, and sold to our partners,” said Shon Rainford, the Food Hub’s senior project manager. “It’s really exciting.” One example of this symbiotic relationship is the success of Nutty Bird Granola, a food business that works out of the incubator kitchen and has wholesale certification. That certification allows Nutty Bird to purchase goods through the Food Hub’s aggregator, sourcing their oats from a partnering farm in Maine and their honey and maple syrup from farms in Massachusetts. The Food Hub then purchases their granola and sells it to partnering institutions and businesses serving the community.
It may come as a surprise how instrumental a role farming plays in Worcester County. With more than 1,500 working farms, it is the largest agricultural county in Massachusetts. The Food Hub’s aggregator program, now engaging nearly 40 farms, helps to ensure that everyone – from farmer to resident – sees the benefits of locally grown, healthy food.
For farmers, this means spending more time farming and less on time-consuming administrative tasks by serving as the middle man for produce sales and transporting product from their farms. It also means keeping more of the food dollar, since they set sale prices, and using the Food Hub’s access to large food purveyors like Sodexo that they normally wouldn’t be able to negotiate with otherwise. For smaller farms, this means thousands of additional dollars in sales per year. For the public, that means locally grown produce makes its way to schools, hospitals, farmers markets and restaurants. For Shon, some of the buyers are deeply personal. “My children are in the Wachusett Regional School system and when they started purchasing items from the Food Hub, I stopped packing lunches for them,” he said.
The Food Hub just completed a move from Shrewsbury to a more centralized location in the Greendale neighborhood of Worcester, a change that is providing even more opportunity for growth. “There’s a real sense of collaboration in Worcester,” says Shon. “It’s the second largest city in New England, but it’s small enough that you can make a real impact.”
The new location in Worcester has big implications for their incubator kitchen, which currently serves more than a dozen food businesses from challah bread and doughnuts to catering services and specialty teas. The new kitchen is on public transportation lines allowing increased access to entrepreneurs looking for a way to kick start their food ideas. “The incubator kitchen is providing a low cost alternative to opening a brick and mortar store,” says Shon. “We’re making it less risky to enter the food business.”
The Worcester location provides large indoor and outdoor spaces where the Food Hub plans to host farmers markets so they can actively continue to bring their farmers and business together. “We’re really trying to build a community where our partners can meet, learn from each other, and thrive,” says Shon.