August 29, 2013
Community advocates are kicking off a campaign today to create the Food District @ Weinland Park, a local-foods hub with a processing plant, employment center, co-op market and space for entrepreneurs.
Supporters say the plan feeds two kinds of hunger: Local-food devotees want a better regional food system, and the Weinland Park neighborhood — improving but still impoverished — craves jobs.
The Food District aims to hum along a continuum “from growing, to processing, to eating, to improving the neighborhood,” said Brian Williams, agriculture specialist at the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission. “We want a system that benefits everybody.”
The finished plan comes about two years after the commission received an $865,000 federal grant to work with partner organizations and outline the project. The Community Economic Development Corp. of Ohio, a subsidiary of the local Godman Guild Association social-services agency, now will lead efforts to finance and develop the proposal.
The land to be transformed is a 3.8-acre former factory site at N. 4th Street and E. 5th Avenue largely owned by Wagenbrenner Development.
Architects’ renderings reimagine the weed-choked lot with a 45,000-square-foot building that would have as its anchor the local-food processing center, where Ohio-grown produce, meat and dairy products would be readied for distribution through flexible pouching, freezing, dry blending and small-batch pasteurization technologies.
Williams said the operation would help keep more food dollars in local communities. Ohioans spend roughly $30 billion on grocery and restaurant food each year, and less than 10 percent of that food is raised and processed locally.
“We’re talking about recirculating those dollars instead of exporting them,” Williams said.
The district also would house a “kitchen incubator” for entrepreneurs to develop new food products; a licensed “staging” kitchen and event space; a community-owned cooperative market and cafe; wholesale cash-and-carry for restaurants and other large buyers; and job training.
An aquaponics system, combining the production of fish and salad greens, would be incorporated into the Food District, too.
The processing center is expected to employ 40 to 60 people and would generate revenue for other parts of the project. Supporters hope to start construction in the next two years.
“What it would accomplish is bringing together the processing and availability of food, and how that can create economic benefits — not only to this community, but to the city,” said Jon Moorehead, executive director of the Community Economic Development Corp.
The Food District business plan says it’s not “a feel-good project that aims to direct charity to people in need. It is a social enterprise that must operate as a strong, viable business that provides employment and fair pay to people who need work, and a fair price to farmers who produce for local markets.”
Moorehead came out of retirement to head the development corporation. He had been with the Finance Fund, a nonprofit organization that links underserved communities with public and private capital.
“I’m a true believer,” he said of the food-district concept.
The vibrancy of a local-foods hub could dent Weinland Park’s high unemployment rate and improve nutrition, Moorehead said. A 2010 survey of 440 residents found that 36 percent were unemployed, and
22 percent said health issues were their biggest barrier to working.
At the same time, Williams said, processing “is one of the biggest bottlenecks” in the local-food delivery system. Food that can’t be packaged or sold quickly enough is often thrown out.
“The ingredients are here for a transformation,” Moorehead said.