By Todd Cohen
DURHAM, N.C. — Connecting local farmers with people in need, adding a missing link to the local food-supply chain, reviving a distressed urban corridor, and boosting the local economy are the goals of a new food hub just opening on the north side of downtown Durham.
Developed by Reinvestment Partners, an advocacy and community development nonprofit that has invested $2 million since 2007 in 17 projects radiating from the intersection of East Geer and North Roxboro streets, Bull City Cool houses two tenants in a 4,200-square-foot building at 902 N. Mangum St.
Operating in the building, which began as a Gulf gas station in 1928, are Bella Bean Organics, a business that buys local food and products and makes home deliveries, and Farmer Foodshare, a nonprofit that helps get fresh food from local farmers to local agencies that serve “food-insecure” individuals.
“It’s going to revitalize the neighborhood,” Peter Skillern, executive director of Reinvestment Partners, says of the food hub. “Its going to help local farmers. It’s going to feed hungry people.”
The nonprofit has raised $600,000 for the project, including $100,000 from the City of Durham to redevelop the building; $100,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for equipment, marketing, development of a food-safety plan, and training for farmers; and $25,000 from Triangle Community Foundation for a processing center, with the grant awarded through a competition that attracted over 50 collaborative proposals to address local needs.
The remainder includes a loan from BB&T and equity investments from Reinvestment Partners.
Reinvestment Partners expects the hub will help Bella Bean Organics and Farmer Foodshare double the combined volume of food they handle in about two years and eventually generate a total of $2 million a year in business, Skillern says.
Formed in 2009 to collect unsold food at the Carrboro Farmers Market and give it to the nearby food pantry at the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service, Farmer Foodshare has been operating at a small warehouse with two eight-foot-by-10-foot walk-in coolers on Hood Street in Durham, just off East Main Street.
Operating with an annual budget of $360,000, up by half from last year, the nonprofit runs “donation stations” at 25 farmers markets in eight counties throughout the state that in 2014 collected 55,000 pounds of fresh produce from vendors and shoppers that it donated to local relief agencies to help feed just over 20,000 people in need.
It also collected $32,000 in donations from shoppers that it used to buy food at the farmers markets for their local partner agencies.
Farmer Foodshare also operates a “pop market,” serving as an exchange that connects local farmers with food pantries and social-service agencies, that last year handled 80,000 pounds of fresh produce totaling $120,000 in sales.
“The capacity for what we can move will dramatically increase,” says Gini Bell, executive director of Farmer Foodshare.
The new processing center, where food can be stored, washed, dried, cut and frozen, will allow Farmer Foodshare to begin providing food for child-care centers and school systems, which typically lack the staff or kitchen equipment to process food from local farmers, Bell says.
Skillern says the food hub will serve as an intermediary that will build both supply and demand in the local food supply chain by adding processing capacity the region lacks, by raising money to buy food from Farmer Foodshare and donate it to social-service agencies, and by attracting more high-income customers for Bella Bean Organics.
The food hub, he says, will “increase our two current tenants’ capacity to buy and redistribute food.”