Akron's New Food Hub Links Farmers, Producers, Consumers, and Disabled Adults

Sep 23, 2016

Farmers, food producers, and Akron shoppers have found an oasis in what used to be a food desert.

As WKSU’s Vivian Goodman reports in today’s Quick Bite, disabled adults are benefiting, too.

John Luby works the register at Hattie’s Food Hub, the new corner market on Douglas Street, with his job coach Kimberly Purnell by his side.

“Do you remember what the amount was, John?” she asks. “Ten,” John replies.

“Awesome. Good job,” says his coach. “Ask her...”

With guidance from his job coach John Luby serves customers at the food hub.
Credit VIVIAN GOODMAN / WKSU

And before she can finish the sentence, John does ask his customer, “Do you want your receipt?”

John is 21, developmentally challenged, and thanks to the non-profit Hattie Larlham organization, gainfully employed. “I like working in the retail,” he says. When asked for a healthy suggestion he points to a display of potatoes and yams. “Yeah,” says John. “It’s vegetable.”

Fresh from the farm plus more
Just-picked vegetables and fruits are available here from Hattie’s Gardens at Old Trail School in Bath and near the Akron Zoo, along with produce from 8 other certified organic farms. 

Local produce is what first attracted Susan Culver of Akron to the new food hub. “Yeah, but then I saw they had other things like the nuts and everything, too,” she says. “Today I got some walnuts and some raisins and tomatoes. It is convenient because I can stop in anytime where farmers’ markets are maybe just a couple hours during the day or something like that. So here, their hours are a little bit more accommodating.”

Since June the retail market’s been open every day but Sunday. And all week-long, intellectually and developmentally disabled adults process food here in the hub’s certified commercial kitchen. “Our crews meet here every day,” says Hattie’s Director of Food Operations Zac Rheinberger. “And right now we’re operating a first shift, but we’re actually about to grow into a second shift.” 

Education is part of the mission
Rheinberger says the hub has really changed Akron’s Cedar-Douglas neighborhood.

“This was a food desert before we opened up our doors, so we’re providing a lot of fresh produce and products here for people to buy, but they need to know why they should buy them, how to cook from scratch, how to cook on a budget. And the space we just walked into is basically geared towards that.”  

Everyone’s welcome to a variety of free classes in this room.  Rheinberger taught one recently on the benefits of green smoothies. “Maybe you have just a couple strawberries left and a couple bits of spinach or something like that,” he says. “and just how you can really blend them up real quick for a quick nutritious 

Hattie's Director of food Operations Zac Rheinberger teaches classes, too, in the hub's education room.
Credit VIVIAN GOODMAN / WKSU

breakfast or a snack when you come home.”  

The education room has a demonstration island with a camera trained on it. “Not only can people attend the classes to get that one-on-one experience and ask questions,” says Rheinberger. “but then they can also access it on our website later.”

Cooking teachers at the food hub include senior citizens who live in nearby public housing. “That generation was one of the last generations to have a full set of skill sets in the kitchen,” says Rheinberger. “And we would like them to impart that, to pass that knowledge along.”  

Farmers benefit
Hattie’s focus on education helped it get a quarter million dollars from the state for the food hub. An agreement with Ohio State University brings in students and faculty for research and to teach classes. “For local farmers and urban farmers,” says Rheinberger, “on good agricultural practices, so they can grow their food in the best sustainable, safe manner.”  

Another way Rheinberger, a self-avowed activist for food justice, helps local growers is taking “seconds,” off their hands. A farmer recently dropped off a load of misshapen peppers and eggplants at the food hub. “Way too many for us to process,” says Rheinberger, “so we put them out front, and it’s just a sign that says ‘free produce.’”  

Normally Rheinberger’s crew transforms such cosmetically-challenged fruits and veggies into sauces and snacks. “Farmers generally have a hard time selling them, so it helps benefit some of the local farmers we work with because otherwise they might be tilling this food into the ground or composting it. And it benefits us because we can get a good locally-made product, and turn it into a great locally-made product.”

Producing local food items

Labor-intensive but meaningful work produces locally based products from locally grown produce.
Credit VIVIAN GOODMAN / WKSU

Like popsicles for Akron’s Popsmith, and acai fruit snacks for Akron’s Peaceful Fruits.

Production rooms take up most of the food hub’s 4400 square feet. Everything’s industry-standard from stoves and convection ovens to 40-gallon steam jackets and tilt-braising tables.

Rheinberger gives us a tour. “So here’s our hot production line. And this is where we do a lot of the sauces, jams, jellies, and preserving of the products. So you can see right there we have buckets of local tomatoes that we’ve turned into sauce. Right behind you there’s a whole stack of blueberry jam that we’ve created that’s waiting to be jarred up and sold in our retail space.”

At one production table three workers gingerly slide thin purple sheets of dried fruit into two-inch square plastic envelopes. “This is the fruit leather right here,” says Rheinberger. “Acai with local pear and apple added to it. It’s a preservative-free, no sugar-added, whole food.”

Packaging the snacks, snaking each one into its little envelope by hand, takes time and patience. “But it’s meant to be labor-intensive,” says Rheinberger, “because they’re products that are made from scratch in an artisan way.”

Along with several thousand units a week of fruit snacks, local granola gets processed, and Terra Nova has its pasta sauce made here from produce grown nearby. “Locally-grown tomatoes that we’ve dried in our dehydration room,” says Rheinberger. “We can preserve them so that they can have a supply all year long, and it’s also a nice aspect to our training program.” 

Integrated training program
19-year-old Emma McCann is a newly-trained food worker. We find her sorting through a pile of dried tomatoes. “I was nervous at first,” she says with a shy smile, “but I get to know everything around here, and I like working here a lot.”

Local tomatoes take a sanitizing bath in an industry-standard tub in the hub's washing room.
Credit VIVIAN GOODMAN / WKSU

The food hub staff includes people without disabilities. “We hired people from the neighborhood. So we have the people in our training program. Then we have what we would call like a typically abled worker, working side-by-side with the people in our training program. And then we have our job coaches.”  

Sandy works in the produce washing room. “I love it!’ she says. Rheinberger watches approvingly as Sandy and her co-workers get local tomatoes nice and clean. “They run through kind of like a cold water Jacuzzi with organic bacteria wash, and then they run under some fresh water sprayers.”

Rheinberger says high quality, local, organic produce is available and affordable now in the neighborhood, thanks to the Carrot Cash program. “When you come in with a government assistance card and you spend $10 on fresh produce, on the spot we can offer you another $10 of purchase power.”

But empowering the disabled adults who work here, according to Hattie Larlham Communications Director Tania Santos, is the biggest benefit of the new food hub. 

“They’re more than just our friends, but now they’re our co-workers and neighbors. And that’s really what it’s all about. At the end of the day it’s about helping people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and in turn we’re helping the community as well.”