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Worcester Regional Food Hub Program Targets Area Farmers, Start-Up Entrepreneurs

Food Hub Operations Manager Dave Johnson.

Food Hub Operations Manager Dave Johnson.

Worcester County Food Bank at 474 Boston Turnpike Road in in Shrewsbury will provide a regulated commercial kitchen, culinary training, and planning assistance to support the development of food businesses by farmers, caterers, and other food entrepreneurs looking to start or grow an existing business.

Worcester County Food Bank at 474 Boston Turnpike Road in Shrewsbury offers a regulated commercial kitchen, culinary training, and planning assistance to support the development of food businesses by farmers, caterers, and other food entrepreneurs looking to start or grow an existing business.

Piloted in January 2016, all the ingredients are now in place for the Worcester Regional Food Hub to begin implementing its three-tiered mission to enhance food producer and consumer networks, targeted workforce development programs, and small business incubation.

Commercial Kitchen Incubator

As a collaborative effort between the Regional Environmental Council (REC) and the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Food Hub program launched its first-ever Commercial Kitchen Incubator in June 2016. The facility located at the Worcester County Food Bank at 474 Boston Turnpike Road in Shrewsbury offers a regulated commercial kitchen, culinary training, and planning assistance to support the development of food businesses by farmers, caterers, and other food entrepreneurs looking to start or grow an existing business.

Dr. Ramon Borges-Mendéz, professor of Community Development and Planning at Clark University, originally teamed up with REC and the Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Commission to submit a grant to the USDA requesting funds to investigate feasibility of creating a food hub in Worcester. A subsequent $524,485 grant from the health foundation is funding the one-year pilot program. Chamber President and CEO Timothy P. Murray is co-director of the project.

The pilot year goals seek to recruit incubator tenants, coordinate business assistance services for tenants, and offer co-packing services to assist farmers with enhanced sales. From a culinary perspective, the kitchen also hopes to define a navigable process for new tenants regarding a bevy of regulatory hurdles they will face out in the real world by working closely with local and state health officials.

Food Hub Operations Manager Dave Johnson, a Quinsigamond Community College graduate who brings nearly 10 years of agricultural experience and four years of food hub operations management in the non-profit sector to the position, said the incubator has already identified and engaged with area food entrepreneurs and farmers as prospective stakeholders. “A good number of those folks are chomping at the bit for the kitchen to open. We have five prospective tenants that we are set to begin working with in varying degrees of readiness,” said Johnson.

Those tenants, Johnson added, represent a diverse cross section of food producers. One of the kitchen’s key target sectors is to support local agriculture and farmers, given Worcester County is home to more farms than any other area in Massachusetts. Johnson said one goal is for farmers to create value added products so that they can then expand their product offerings and sales. For example, several local farmers are interested in producing jams, applesauce, apple butter, bread sticks and wine crackers through the kitchen. The Food Hub is also tapping into the rich ethnic heritage of Worcester with a few vendors looking to create culturally specific foods such as Burmese cuisine and other international foods.

Johnson said the kitchen will also be utilized by another REC program called YouthGROW, which is dedicated to fostering youth mentorship and employment opportunities. “We have an urban farm in downtown Worcester and they have a line of hot sauce that kids have sold at the farmers’ market for a few years now,” Johnson said. “Our kitchen is going to allow them to really scale up that operation. They are our very first tenants.”

Cost for tenants is $25 per hour to use kitchen facility, and there will be a cap at the incubator kitchen for vendors subject to the scheduling of REC staffing. “We are really trying to tailor the program to tenant needs,” said Johnson. As a food justice organization, Food Hub wants to create low barriers for entry into the program. The kitchen incubator application simply asks for culinary experience, product offerings and basic demographic information. REC staff then sit down with promising applicants to determine their goals and experiences and what support they need. “Some come to us never have ever owning a business before,” Johnson said. “One of the things we are trying to do is to present entrepreneurship as a viable track to solve long-term unemployment or under-employment. We are working closely with the Chamber to connect tenants with micro-business development services.”

One such service is the Chamber’s SCORE program that offers business and marketing planning workshops, financial support and even access to capital. “This is not just a cold referral, though,” Johnson said. “We are not just sending people over there. We have someone at SCORE who understands what our goals are and the nuances and needs of our tenants.”

Food Service Culinary Training Program

The two other tiers of the Food Hub program are also almost ready to launch. The Food Service Culinary Training Program set for roll out in late July aims to provide employment opportunities to chronically un/under-employed populations through a comprehensive education in both classroom and work environments in partnership with Quinsigamond Community College. Johnson said two cohorts of 10-12 students will be created through a certificate program where students will receive 50 hours of classroom training over three to six weeks, followed by a four-month internship with an institutional partner.

“We want to utilize the culinary program for underemployed to have a ladder to success,” Johnson said.

Aggregation, Marketing, and Distribution

The program’s Hub for Aggregation, Marketing, and Distribution segment will provide greater market opportunities for local farms by offering logistical support to help increase the produce purchased by local institutions, as well as the amount of affordable, local, healthy food available in underserved communities. Pilot year goals are to connect eight to 10 farmers with five institutional buyers; work with REC Mobile Farmers Market and Worcester DPH Healthy Markets Program to provide access to fresh affordable fruits and veggies to underserved communities; and create lasting business relationships between farms and larger institutions such as school systems, hospitals, and programs that are serving large group of people. Currently, Worcester public schools and Holy Cross College have expressed interest in this aspect of the Food Hub program.

“We have the largest concentrations of small farms of anywhere in the state, Johnson said. “Scaling up is their biggest challenge. Farmers’ markets are a very common opportunity for farming. But farmers’ markets aren’t helping entire communities eat. Institutional buyers provide scales to those farms for them to sell, as an example, their entire lot of tomatoes at one time. ”

Interested Food Hub program applicants and inquiries should call Johnson at 508-799-9139 or email foodhubops@recworcester.org to get more information. A future website is also in the works.