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The Nation’s Largest Food Hub is Coming to Louisville, Kentucky

A 24-acre site formerly occupied by the National Tobacco Company will soon become home to a local food hub in Louisville, Kentucky.

While Louisville has emerged as a new foodie destination in the past few years, this project is aimed more at supporting small farmers—and building a local food economy—than serving artisan sandwiches. But there will likely be plenty of those too.

The hub is envisioned as a marketplace where farmers would be able to monetize their entire crop. Local produce will first to go to restaurant and market buyers within the hub. What doesn’t sell that way–-the “seconds”–will go to an industrial food processor located next door. What’s left–-the “thirds”–will go to a food bank in the hub. And whatever cannot be eaten will go to an anerobic biodigester producing methane and heat from organic waste.

Food hubs, or networks that allow regional growers to collaborate on marketing and distribution, are growing in popularity around the nation, thanks in part to support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But this one takes the model further. The vision is to have a mix of tenants representing the entire food cycle. There will also be a two-acre demonstration farm operated by the county agriculture extension service.

The product of a partnership between city government and Seed Capital Kentucky, a non-profit investor, the West Louisville Food Hub is intended to bolster the local food economy by filling current gaps in distribution and aggregation. Those needs became all the more pressing with the closure of the previous local food distributor, Grasshoppers Distribution, last year.

Stephen Reily, Seed Capital KY’s founder, characterizes the planned hub as “an industrial site that works like a farm.” By co-locating a food processor, a juicery, a bio-digester, and a farm, he hopes to resolve bottlenecks in the supply chain, foster economies of scale, and create a one-stop-shop for both local food producers and buyers.

“There are too many one-to-one transactions today,” says Reily. “If a chef wants to order from Sysco that’s one transaction, versus calling up 18 different farmers.”

The impetus behind the hub came in part from Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer’s 2013 initiative, Vision Louisville, which identified both a food hub and an energy plant using waste as community priorities. But Reily himself saw “a lot of unconnected dots between local food and local people.” Connecting them meant not only fixing current problems, but transforming Louisville’s food economy. “The more we looked at it, the bigger it got,” adds Reily.

The project is ambitious in scope as well as size. The site itself, in West Louisville, is larger than the infield of the Churchill Downs racetrack. Yet the neighborhood is worlds away from the roses and mint juleps of the Kentucky Derby. Although it’s a single-family residential area where houses have yards, it is also the most economically depressed part of the city. Reily estimates that 90 percent of neighborhood children receive free or subsidized school lunches, and the unemployment rate is the highest in the county.

Like urban farming initiatives in other cities, civic leaders are looking to the food hub for urban renewal. “I’ve heard estimates of up to 275 construction jobs for phase one, and 250 permanent jobs,” says Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton, whose district includes two of the three neighborhoods that border the food hub site. “But even one job would be positive in this environment.”

Outside of providing jobs, question remain about how to make such a large-scale venture “fit” into the community. Potential tenants, which include a commercial kitchen incubator and indoor hydroponics and aeroponics companies, have expressed interest in making their facilities accessible to the public.

But Valerie Magnuson, executive director of Louisville Grows, a nonprofit that maintains several community gardens and a grower’s co-op in West Louisville, is skeptical of the project as an outside initiative. “We’ll continue to hold them accountable, and see if they’re able to listen to the people in the neighborhood,” she says.

While the idea of a food hub may be relatively novel, Louisville itself has long been a hub for other kinds of commerce. Located at the falls of the Ohio River, the city was a busy shipping port into the 20th Century. Today it is the site of Worldport, UPS’s global air hub and central logistical operations. Louisville is also the headquarters of one of the world’s largest fast food companies: Yum! Brands, which operates KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell.

The West Louisville Food Hub, an estimated $45 million project, is still in the early stages. In mid-September, the city formalized the land grant, and while the architectural team has been selected, it has not been announced yet. Meanwhile, Seed Capital KY is applying for New Markets Tax Credits to cover about 30 percent of the initial cost of getting the site ready, with the remainder is expected to come from Federal and philanthropic grants.  The ground will likely be broken sometime in the second quarter of next year, with a projected completion date of mid-2016.

“This project has the potential to transform one of Louisville’s most distressed neighborhoods by bringing good food, good jobs, and good development to a vacant site,” says Mayor Greg Fischer.

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16 thoughts on “The Nation’s Largest Food Hub is Coming to Louisville, Kentucky

  1. This is wonderful. Louisville is leading the way for food justice. The possibility city doing it right. ROCKING THE 3 Ps….People, purpose, and profit…KUDOS!!!

  2. A very much welcomed idea that can be fruitful for the West End, Louisville and all the state of Kentucky. Louisville has always been on the leading edge of progress for the United States. It is a blessing to see Louisville again taking its rightful place as the catalyst in todays modern society .”Lets make it happen”

  3. Terrific idea come on up to NE British Columbia Canada to the BC Peace where the largest piece of Class 1 food producing soils lie waiting for EXACTLY this type of development, in a heavenly Peace River Valley. We seek to develop this Valley into the largest food producing hub in NW Canada!

  4. What a fantastic idea. This is going to put Louisville at the top of the class. Along with being a city of compassion, we are also a city with creative ideas that are not all about making a profit but, more importantly about helping each other.

  5. It sounds like a great project but ^^^ Louisville the leading edge for progress in the U.S. and a catalyst of modern society? Wow. Been outside of Louisville much?

  6. Tim, Louisville can be considered a catalyst for modern society, particularly in the health care field. Louisville is home to the first emergency room, civil ambulance, artificial heart transplant and hand transplant. I don’t know what else you could call that.

  7. The problem with revitalization initiatives of impoverished neighborhoods is that when you improve the area, whether by job creation, making local food more accessible, or through tightening of housing codes, it only ends up displacing the people that the project was reportedly put into place to assist. I am hopeful that the city of Louisville has found a way around this issue and are actively looking at other cities’ food and revitalization initiative attempts to find solutions that work.

  8. Being a producer, I will say what I always say… these projects are great and really exciting but until we address WHO is growing all of this food and our skilled labor force issue we will not have enough food to make food hubs like this work. Our farm produces on 100 acres and we struggle to find 5 employees each year. Secretary Vilsack wants 100,000 new farmers but where will the 500,000 employees come from? I want to build a fair and equitable food model not relying on migrant/exploited farmworkers and I have yet to see anyone address this issue. Great to have the infrastructure… but who is willing to toil in the fields and grow the food?

  9. Pingback: The Nation’s Largest Food Hub | Louisville Grows

  10. Pingback: Re-Growth › Vertical farming and CHP

  11. I hope this is successful and agree with earlier comment that this sounds sexy but when it comes right down to it, farming is manual labor and the work is hard. I hope they do not intend on exploiting animals. Animal ag contributes some of the highest carbon emissions, consumes the most freshwater, costs more to ‘produce’, and is really hard on our fellow animal species. Plant based diets are much healthier, so if one doesn’t care about the Earth or other animals, at least do it for yourself 🙂