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An effort is underway in Riverhead to build a sustainable and equitable food system that will benefit the entire region.
Led by the East End Food Institute, a Southampton-based non-profit that encourages partnerships with farmers, food producers and consumers, the initiative is gaining momentum. Developing a Riverhead-based East End Food Hub, the food institute is working on a $1.5 million project designed to diversify farmers’ sources of income while ensuring healthy, farm-fresh food for people in the need.
The Food Hub would allow farmers to develop what the U.S. Department of Agriculture “has called a mid-tier value chain, taking advantage of economies of scale to sell more units of stuff for less than a farmer’s income.” diversity,” said Kate Fullam, East End Executive Director of the Food Institute.
“It’s nice to have a diversification of income streams,” Fullam said. “In the East End of Long Island, it’s hard to move things because of traffic” and other challenges, including land, crop, labor and transportation costs. the production.
The Food Hub would centralize the aggregation, processing and distribution of local foods to help create new markets for Long Island producers and their products. At the same time, it would address current inequities related to access to food in institutions such as schools, pantries, and other organizations.
Supporting local food producers is critical for the region, Fullam said, pointing to supply chain debacles that have emerged during the pandemic.
The pandemic has underscored just how “fragile the food system really is,” Fullam said. Helping the farmer build mid-level channels to sell bulk quantities opens up new opportunities for farmers while allowing people to access local food, she added.
“If we don’t invest, we could see supply chain breakdowns,” she said, adding that staple foods that may come from Long Island could otherwise be purchased elsewhere and then have to “cross Long Island Sound or over two bridges to get to us.
Located on the former site of Homeside Florist and Greenhouses, the property that would house the proposed food center is now owned by Paul Pawlowski and Kenneth Balato. Pawlowski and Balato rent the space from the food institute as a long-term tenant. Its location in Riverhead, Fullam said, is at the gateway to the North and South Fork.
Pawlowski said he and his business partner are expanding the property with the food institute as he pursues site plans to expand his food processing and distribution capacity. This includes renovating the existing 5,000 square foot building, which currently houses a year-round farmers’ market.
“It’s a good development for the city, both for Forks and for the community,” Pawlowski said. “I think it’s a good catalyst.”
Plans for the Food Hub’s first phase would be designed to include a farmers’ retail market and other capabilities. This includes a demonstration area for food and nutrition education. Plans call for a 2,000 square foot community kitchen to launch small food and beverage businesses. The food processing area would allow for high value-added processing. A warehouse and cold storage space would consolidate and distribute locally grown and manufactured products. And there are accommodations for short- and long-term food system workers and for people attending public education forums, with a kitchen view.
All of this requires funding and community support. The organization has already received an incentive for a $300,000 refund on the $1.5 million project from the first phase of the plans. This achievement would highlight “the validity of the project with the state’s commitment,” Fullam said.
Fullam said the institute is pursuing other rounds of support, including from government agencies and private and corporate donors.
Thursday, a “preview” cocktail at Nick & Toni’s in East Hampton raised funds and shed light on the project. He offered an inside look at the hub’s renders, as well as insight into dedicated programming and the various doors this food hub would open to partner organizations and community members.
“The Riverhead Food Hub project has the potential to contribute significantly to the East End,” said Mark Smith, managing partner of East Hampton-based Honest Man Company, which operates Nick & Toni’s.
“Addressing food insecurity and educating people about food issues is essential for our communities,” said Smith, a member of the institute’s board of trustees.
On the cocktail menu were dishes from the institute’s producers, such as Balsam Farms in Amagansett, Mecox Bay Dairy in Water Mill and Treiber Farms in Peconic. Local farms and producers also served specialty cocktails and hors d’oeuvres to showcase the abundance of the region’s bounty.
The institute, with its collaborations with community leaders, has had a number of successes in its commercial kitchen at Stony Brook’s Southampton campus. The institute rents kitchen time and storage space there for the production of food and beverages. This incubator space is where several businesses have sprung up, including Carissa’s Bread and Goodfoodperiod – both of which tout local ingredients – as well as other entrepreneurs “who could start their business without having to invest in infrastructure” , said Fullam.
The institute also works with local food banks which, through programs such as Nourish New York, have “buying power to source local produce,” Fullam said. “They can come through us – we have a virtual farmer’s market.” So when, say, there’s an extra bounty of 1,200 pounds of sweet potatoes, “we can cut them into cubes and freeze them ‘so the food stays fresh’ while it gets to food banks safely. “, she said.
In its work of supporting, promoting and advocating for local farms, the institute conducted a food feasibility study to plan ahead to meet demand.
Now, the organization works with New Venture Advisors, which works with food hubs across the country, as well as other experts and consultants.
And there are plans to expand further. These plans would include a second building with a multi-purpose area to expand the farmer’s market, host community food events and showcase hands-on cooking demonstrations with local producers.
But it can take time.
“It has to be a societal investment,” Fullam said.