Food Security and Food Halls

CityLab published an excellent article last week that discussed the Pizitz Food Hall and how it can assist in overcoming the food desert in downtown Birmingham.  I profiled the Pizitz mixed-use project  a little while back, with its culinary component being a food hall and restaurant incubator.  What I did not realize, are the surrounding issues that downtown Birmingham has faced over the past several decades with feeding its local residents.  The food hall, restaurant incubator, and a brand-new Publix grocery store located a few blocks away will remedy some of the concerns that people have faced with local food security.


Pizitz Food Hall – Image credited to Bayer Properties

My favorite part of the article is whether grocery stores or food halls can actually bring more awareness to eating healthy and local:

But will this crack downtown Birmingham’s food desert problem? There’s certainly excitement in Birmingham over these new arrivals, but researchers are “far from consensus” on how to alleviate food deserts, says Michele ver Ploeg, an economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. One commonsense approach is to give the green light to initiatives that aim to promote public health by bringing fresh and healthy food into a community at an affordable cost. Supermarkets are often the go-to intervention, since they tend to be fairly affordable and offer a range of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats.

But the influence of supermarkets on healthy eating is less clear. In 2014, a study in Philadelphia found that increased access to grocery stores did not ultimately result in healthier eating habits; meanwhile, a study in Pittsburgh found that a supermarket did promote healthier eating habits, but not because people were actually shopping there. As Laura Bliss reported for CityLab, the entire neighborhood’s eating habits improved regardless of whether residents switched to shopping at the new grocery store.

Food halls play an even fuzzier role in eliminating food deserts, as a relatively new phenomenon that operates somewhere between a restaurant and a market. Ver Ploeg points out that restaurants may help fill gaps in a food desert, but their prices may curb accessibility for those in lower income brackets. Meanwhile, prepared foods are mostly not eligible for SNAP benefits. It’s worth noting, too, that many of Birmingham’s lower-income families now reside in neighborhoods outside of the downtown core, in areas that remain without either a grocer or a food hall.

There are no concrete answers from an academic point of view, but these are trends that are sometimes hard to quantify, especially since healthy eating habits can require a very long transition timeline.  What I do believe is that providing local residents with a wide-array of food choices along with proper education will ultimately be an added benefit to society, ultimately creating healthy and sustainable communities over the long-term.  Residents require choice.  Not just an organic produce market, and not just McDonalds, but everything in between.

I’m a big believer in the idea of a food hub, especially for cities that have to deal with large swaths of food deserts.  The concept that residents are able to learn, eat, and purchase good within the culinary realm, all in one place is highly important.  And much of the time, it won’t be induced by a grocery store moving into a neighborhood or a cool taco shop (as much as I love cool taco shops).  There needs to be a local grassroots component to increasing food access and healthy eating choices. Which is why in the case of Birmingham, it is great to see that REV Birmingham, an economic development agency is so involved in attempting to ensure that the food movement stays local, and for locals that require food accessibility, and entrepreneurial opportunities.

Now, I understand that the idea of a food hub is just in its infancy and it is still very difficult to make sense of it from a financial sense for a private developer.  But the idea of a food hub that contains the components of a food hall, grocery store, education, food distribution, incubator, commercial kitchens, among other items is something that public officials should get excited about from a community building standpoint.  One way to counteract financial risk is to not have all components within one development.  We need to be INNOVATIVE.  What if a city planning department is able to create a new zoning typology where culinary-related land uses and developments are given preference and receive certain incentives?   Are there other policies out there that governments can take advantage of?

Getting back to Pizitz, I do think this is a great step in providing economic stability to an area that has obviously gone through great upheaval.  The addition of the food hall, incubator, and grocery store will add much needed vitality to a once struggling neighborhood that was considered a food desert.  Now lets see how it performs once it opens in December.



Michigan Continues to be a leader in Food Hubs

During this past summer, I profiled how food hubs in Michigan continue to get national attention for their growth and entrepreneurship. See Urban Farming and Food Hubs in Michigan.

I was reading recently how Michigan State University (MSU) Center for Regional Food Systems has continued to research food hubs and their viability in local and regional markets.  Food hubs are great in theory, but private business must be convinced that it can be a viable business model that does not rely on large public incentives and grants.  The West Louisville FoodPort was unable to become shovel-ready when a major anchor pulled out of the project, sending the entire ROI out the window.

MSU defines a food hub “as businesses or organizations that actively manage the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified food products”.  From a survey that MSU conducted, some interesting stats emerged:

  • 95 percent of Michigan’s food hubs are experiencing an increase in demand of their products and services;
  • Food hubs three largest reported customer types were restaurants, small grocery stores, and kindergarten through 12th-grade school food services;
  • 74 % of food hubs reported that the majority of their customers were located within a 100-mile radius.

I find the second point the most interesting, since we typically think of local farmers markets supplying primarily to end-user customers.  These food hubs are much larger in scale, being distribution centers for local farmers, food processors, and other agri-businesses.  It would be interesting to know if the majority of food hubs also have a wholesale option to walk-in customers.

The infrastructure needed for a food hub is simple enough, a distribution centre with offices.  Where it gets interesting is the possibility to grow a food hub into more than just a distribution network, which is what the West Louisville FoodPort attempted to do.  A modular design that would allow other uses to grow off of an established food hub could be financially viable since it would phase over time.  These uses could include a farmers market, education, cafes/restaurants, etc.


Washtenaw Food Hub in Lansing, Michigan – Image credited to treetownmurals

Where do food hubs go from here?  I believe the concept is still in its infancy, but just how food halls have overtaken North America, the idea of food hubs are spreading quickly.  It takes only a few major success stories to provide case studies/best practices for others to follow suit.


West Louisville FoodPort Development Canceled

With a busy fall, I was surprised that this news slipped through the cracks in my news feed.  The West Louisville FoodPort, an innovative Culinary Oriented Development that was a game changer for local food distribution, vertical farming, and education has been shelved due to its primary anchor pulling out of the project.  The non-profit developer, Seed Capital was unable to find a new anchor that made the project financially feasible to construct.  Even with the local government “gifting” the land to Seed Capital for $1, the developer was unable to create financial sustainability in the project.

This demonstrates how difficult it is to create inventive and pioneering developments that have not yet been proven to successfully work.  15 to 20 years ago, many developers, tenants, and financial institutions were wary of mixed-use and transit-oriented developments.  The commercial development sector is slow to change, and ROI (return on investment) is the key factor.  It took several decades before mixed-use developments and new development typologies became more prevalent, especially in the North American context (and even more so in the suburban context).


OMA designed West Louisville FoodPort

I see this effort by Seed Capital as a parallel case study.  They were trying to be first-to-market with a new concept that could assist the West Louisville community from a food security, education, and job standpoint.  Unfortunately the idea of food ports and Culinary Oriented Developments are still in their infancy.  The financial numbers are not as prosperous as constructing a big box power center, where revenues are more stable through retail lease agreements.   I don’t doubt that there will be further efforts in the coming years to establish food ports in other North American cities.  And a developer that is able to construct such a project will likely need the backing of not only the local government and community, but businesses who are able to potentially sustain short term losses for long term gain.

Read the full article here.


Urban Farming and Food Hubs in Michigan

Detroit has quickly become one of the leaders of urban farming in North America.  With such a large amount of vacant land in the city due to blighted property, former industrial lands, and uninhabited homes, there is ample availability to transform these sites into indoor and outdoor urban farms that grow produce year round.  Many investors have been striking deals with the City of Detroit over the past several years to acquire properties for localized urban agricultural uses.  This includes fields, hydroponic farms, greenhouses, and processing facilities.

In 2015, Inhabitat reported that Detroit was home to more than 1,000 community gardens, which typically supply food either free or at a low cost to food banks and community groups for distribution.  Local community farming has become so popular, city planners and council are becoming continually involved in figuring out how much land should be allocated for urban farming uses, making sure to keep vacant land available for other commercial uses.


Small-scale Urban Farm in Detroit – Image credited to


Where it gets interesting is that there are now local entrepreneurial for-profit organizations that are sprouting up around Detroit and throughout Michigan due to the proliferation of urban farming.  Food hubs have increasingly become established to collect and distribute produce within the local communities.  The thought process is that many smaller farmers have a difficult time getting their product to stores and markets, so food hubs become the connection point between the grower and consumer.  Many large scale agricultural companies have their own distribution networks, so food hubs fill the role for smaller local entrepreneurial enterprise.  Stores and markets who would rather obtain fruits, vegetables, and other local goods (rather than out-of-state items) can connect with food hubs to obtain a wide variety of local food on a consistent basis.  Food hubs can also connect restaurants to local goods in a manner that would be much more difficult and time consuming than in the past.  In short, food hubs gather and distribute local food to local markets in a highly efficient manner.

One of the largest food hubs in Michigan is located in Traverse City, Michigan which is approximately 4 hours NW of Detroit.  Cherry Capital Foods tagline is “we put the to in farm to table”, aptly describing how they connect the dots between food producer and consumer.  From the Cherry Capital Foods website:

Cherry Capital Foods is a unique food distributor based in Traverse City, Michigan. We work with farmers, growers and producers both locally and regionally but only from the state of Michigan.

By focusing on local and Michigan sources, we encourage the growing focus on regional foodsheds as well as support the Michigan economy and environment. We keep duplicate trucks off the road and create efficiencies for our food providers and our customers. One refrigerated truck, one delivery, one invoice – multiple, independent food sources.

Cherry Capital Foods is primarily a food distributor, helping our customers and our farmers figure out how to source local food and how to provide local food to the marketplace. We help customers find specific Michigan products and also help producers find unique customers. We help our customers educate their guests and shoppers about which farms they are buying from, as we keep all farm products separate in our warehouse and inventory.

Our product categories include:

  • Produce: fresh vegetables and fruits. Many fruits also offered frozen and dried.
  • Proteins: tofu, beef, veal, pork, lamb, rabbit, chicken, duck, turkey.
  • Eggs: chicken, duck, quail.
  • Dairy: milk, butter, and cheeses from cows, goats, sheep.
  • Value Added items for both retail and food service.
  • Wine (through our sister company, Up North Distributing).

The Cherry Capital Foods 60,000 SF warehouse and distribution center is located in a renovated hockey arena, a very innovative transformation of space since both previous and current use requires high levels of refrigeration.

Michigan previously was not the first place to come to mind when discussing local agribusiness innovation.  There is really a great entrepreneurial spirit that has come about over the past 5 to 7 years due to tough economic times for many of the cities and communities throughout the State.  It has forced them to be innovative and think outside-the-box.  There are things that are happening in Detroit and around Michigan that need to be studied, as there are applications and implementation techniques to be put into use in other similar cities who require economic diversification, food security, and entrepreneurial growth.