Food Hubs: Criticisms and Considerations for Current and Future Sites

Recently on CityLab, an article was published on the recent plan of a Food Port in Louisville, Kentucky to be developed by 2016. This port is not the first in the States, and in fact there are many other hubs that are popping up around the country in efforts to provide local and regional food markets to typically more economically disadvantaged sections of cities. Some of these hubs are providing other services such as incubator kitchens and canning facilities, while some are looking into other mixed-use development options with drug stores and condominiums. This project is being developed and funded by Seed Capital Kentucky, a nonprofit committed to locally-sourced food products and the partnerships that sustain this local economy. The Food Port is part of the many projects currently underway led by Vision Louisville and other important stakeholders throughout the Metro area, as a revitalization strategy for the western part of the city. Vicky Gan writes:

Seed Capital originally conceived of the development as a food “hub” in 2013, but renamed it the “FoodPort” this year, after the concept evolved to incorporate a kitchen incubator, food truck plaza, demonstration farm, classrooms, and even an anaerobic digester to convert the facility’s organic waste back into usable energy.

The article is pretty convincing and answered most of my questions I had that ultimately doubted the fate of the project. I’m still left with some criticisms, though not to this specific project but of these food hub/port efforts in general. First of all, many of these projects are doing some good when they are taking unused land parcels and redeveloping them, often in the more blighted spots of cities. However, I’m wondering how these projects will affect the immediate constituency that reside in the surrounding area. Many of these projects claim to offer local employment opportunities as well as a more equitable source of healthy food options and the increasing benefits of “community”.

How will these hubs affect the other marts and convenience stores within the area that are serving as the local economy, as well as the price of land and tax revenue from this redevelopment? While these projects claim to bring education, employment and economy into a more regional and local vision, where are the local constituents’ voices and opinions throughout the planning process? What are the engagement strategies being used to source where these hubs should be placed, and see the greater reception of the local community and their ideas for how this can positively affect them? After doing some research, I haven’t found much mentioned and so I’m left with wondering, will these projects actually help the local under-served populations as they assert themselves to, or will they continue to cater to the “food yuppy”, usually more of the affluent background?

I ask the last question because on many of the project websites, the term “foody” is often used, and even Caroline Heine (Director of Seed Capital Kentucky) brings up the point that local food should not just be for “upper middle-class yuppies”. Who are these companies, their sites, and their projects’ marketing schemes seems to be in conflict with who these companies are developing for, or rather should be, developing with. When terms like “foody” are used in the marketing scheme, are these plans really as equitable as they claim? Why do these developments need to be advertised with the “foody” in mind, who often times is also the “upper middle-class yuppy”? If these plans are really meant to foster local economic growth and revitalization of struggling neighborhoods in cities, then how these plans are marketed and discussed needs to change in order to ensure that the people who will be most affected (and that the plans claim to benefit the most) are appropriately addressed and considered top priority throughout all phases of a plan. Jeff Farbman, of National Good Food Network, discusses the applications of these hubs in underserved neighborhoods and cities.

“If you have a city or philanthropic organization interested in reviving a city, locating [so-called] ‘light industrial’ is a great thing to do,” Farbman says. “You are talking about a bunch of jobs, the potential for multiple shifts, but you’re also talking about larger trucks. It’s unlikely to be located in the dense-population or high-wealth areas. I can see economically there is quite a bit of rationale for that.”

Looking at site locations of many of these initiatives, they are often located near interstates (which conveniently are developed through or around struggling neighborhoods). This is great because it offers access to inter- and intra- state commuters, as well as to truck-drivers that can transport goods from the surrounding farms outside of the city limits. Although, I am wondering how future transportation will be impacted in these neighborhoods, with these hubs offering various attractions and necessities to such a large and variable public? Will these hubs replace the farmer’s markets that have popped up throughout cities, and how will this impact the farmers that do not get a spot at the new food hub? How will these hubs mediate engagement with the various population and their income sources- will they accept supplementary income and how do they plan to engage and develop capacity amongst the lower-income constituents to take part in the local economy?

Though I have lots of questions, I think that overall these food ports and food hubs offer more good than harm. I couldn’t help but think about a city that is so dear to me, that I think could benefit greatly from this idea: Memphis. I lived in rural Arkansas for almost two years, and Memphis was like my second home throughout my time in Arkansas. I grew to know it well and as a planner and justice advocate, I always have it in the forefront of my thoughts when it comes to plans or policies and measuring their real intentions versus real impacts. After hypothesizing some places where a food hub could potentially go, I decided to look at the interactive travel-guide map of Memphis to see what would be nearby. Finding a site with similar criteria like the others was challenging simply because I don’t live there anymore. However, using the interactive map and referring to Google Maps, as well as my own memory, I have decided that somewhere along South Parkway West near Interstate 55 would be most appropriate. The map helped me discern from places near Bartlett, Midtown, Cooper Young, or East Memphis. However, when considering South Memphis, South Parkway and the Southgate Plaza Mall were screaming at me. Much of South Parkway consists of liquor stores, mini-marts, loan and credit companies, pawn shops, and has been given a reputation for crime and poverty. You can see the difference here at the screen shots from the interactive map from East Memphis to South Memphis.

East Memphis offers arts, music, museums, and many restaurants.

South Memphis offers clubs, casinos, and landmarks or trails.

South Parkway cuts between I-55 and I-240, and clearly there are no attractions visible except the airport down at the bottom right corner and Martin Luther Riverside Park to the left of I-55.

Obviously all of my previous criticisms and questions would apply here. There are so many buildings along South Parkway (West or East) that are either vacant or decaying, and has ample large parking lots and unused concrete land. Because of the vicinity to the two interstates, but mainly proximity to I-55 and the Martin Luther Riverside Park, along with the economic and social conditions current, I think South Parkway would be an excellent model site if Memphis would want to develop a food hub. Memphis is already a city known for its musical and food cultures, and is right on the Mississippi River surrounded by farms to the East and across the river. Bringing a local food economy as well as employment, and furthermore, pride amongst the many farmers and impoverished city and city outskirts folk, would be a significant improvement to not only the people but also the reputation for South Memphis.

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