PROVIDENCE – When the Southside Community Land Trust over the last several years needed to have harvested crops cleaned to be prepared as healthy food options for the local city neighborhoods, staffers would use a garden hose on the back deck at their Somerset Street offices. Afterward, they would transport the food to various cold storage locations as the office wasn’t designed for such an operation.
This summer, the land trust’s new food hub building at 404 Broad St. inside a repurposed 1870 building once in operation will not only increase availability of locally grown healthy food for the city’s underserved communities in one location, but also be part of a revitalization of a once hard-hit section of south Providence.
“I think this [food hub] building is one part of that,” SCLT board President Rochelle Lee said Wednesday before a tour of the 12,000-square-foot facility. “Not only did we take away blight… but we also filled a great need in this neighborhood.”
Lee also said the organization didn’t initially have a single food hub location because SCLT at first didn’t have the community support needed to pull this project off. Supporting local farmers and addressing food insecurity in the community problems “starts at the local level,” Lee said, and getting that local community support is crucial to address immediate needs to give back to the community.
One major element of community support the land trust received is corporate funding to build the food hub. SCLT Executive Director Margaret DeVos said the $5.8 million food hub was mostly funded – $2.16 million – through a loan from a coalition of health care providers, such as Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island and Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island.
DeVos said the Kresge Foundation made a challenge where it would match dollar for dollar in healthy food retail investments if the land trust could get the health industry to contribute funds toward the project. She said Neighborhood and Blue Cross “took the call” and was pleasantly surprised that she received a “yes” from the health insurers.
“They said they don’t ever do that, but this is important,” DeVos said. “It was them being incredibly responsive. It makes sense to invest it in ways that keep people healthier. It makes all the sense in the world.”
About $1.5 million for the food hub project came from the New Markets Tax Credit supported by The Reinvestment Fund and US Bank; $755,000 from R.I. Housing and Mortgage Finance Corp. and $610,000 from R.I. Commerce Corp.
The land trust still had some challenges brought forth by the COVID-19 pandemic. DeVos said the land trust is dealing with labor shortages not because of not finding skilled workers, but rather dealing with workers who have illnesses.
“They can’t get to work because they either have COVID or someone in their family has COVID – and people just can’t get to their jobs,” she said. “This is not a work-from-home situation. If you’re moving food from one place to another, you have to be there.” DeVos also said inflation increased the price of the new building by $700,000.
The new food hub, which is set to be fully operational in either July or August, has the capacity to house $1 million worth of food to be sold to low-income families in Providence, Central Falls and Pawtucket. DeVos said she expects the hub to have about $100,000 in produce in its first year of operation, but grow over time.
Along with having SCLT’s administrative offices on the second floor, the hub’s lower floor will include a small grocer featuring produce and imported African foods and a pair of restaurants. Those businesses, the land trust said, will further the mission to address food insecurity and build a more equitable local food system within urban neighborhoods.
Having necessary land will be needed to keep up with the demand for food at the hub. DeVos said SCLT has 40 gardeners it works with on an everyday basis, and 50 community gardens and urban farms in its network within Providence, Cranston, Pawtucket and Tiverton. Once the food hub’s business – and the demand for food – begins to increase, so will the need to find more land, DeVos said.
“The next thing we’re going to go back to is finding more land for the very farms that we’re working with now to expand their farm businesses and feed into the food hub here,” DeVos said. “We’ll be working with those farmers to get more land and be more productive on the land they have, and that will just keep growing.”