Lake-to-River Food Hub Plants Seeds for Economy

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – When they first started Common Wealth Inc., Pat Rosenthal and Jim Converse had no idea what it would grow into. It began in 1986 as a housing initiative for low-income families around Youngstown’s Wick Park. Four years later, they opened an office on Elm Street just north of Broadway Avenue.

Over the next decade, Common Wealth Inc. worked on projects in the Wick Park neighborhood to improve the vicinity and clean it up. Crucial, Converse says, were the churches and synagogues that line Elm Street near the park.

“Most of the church people would come in Friday or Sunday, leave and then the area would be empty for the rest of the week,” he says. “We thought that with a farmers market on Saturday, it would bring some positive activity instead of all the drug dealing and noise and other problems.”

Common Wealth organized four farmers markets at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Youngstown during the summer of 2003. The next summer, there were 10 and the market “picked up some good momentum,” Converse says, through 2006, reaching a size similar to where it is today. Then, in 2008, the group started a downtown market on Tuesdays.

It was from these farmers markets that the Lake-to-River Food Hub was born.

“We wanted a positive change for the neighborhood, so we put our heads to together and got the idea that grew into the food hub,” Converse says.

The hub acts as an aggregator for fresh food grown in northeastern Ohio, from Ashtabula to Columbiana counties. Food taken in from farmers who participate in the Lake-to-River Food Cooperative is sold at the farmers markets, used at the Common Wealth Kitchen Incubator and sold on the hub’s online marketplace. Later this year, the Food Hub will open the Elm Street Café and a grocery store next door to a newly renovated house that will serve as a headquarters for Lake-to-River.

“What we do is not one set location,” says Lake-to-River Co-op President Melissa Miller. “Food happens on Elm Street, but it starts from as far away as Portage County. We’re talking about regional work from Lake Erie to the Ohio River.”

To help promote local food, Lake-to-River began the 30-Mile Meal program, labeling food sold at restaurants or through the online market as food grown locally. Currently, eight area vendors – mostly restaurants – are part of the program’s 30-Mile Meal Passport app, but more than 60 take part in bringing locally grown food to consumers.

“Everyone knows that when you buy locally, everything is affected,” says Kim Myers, Common Wealth financial manager. “When people look at farmers and know who they are, it can have an impact on their buying habits.”

The economic impact of locally grown food could be sizeable. Currently, between 2% and 3% of the food eaten in northeastern Ohio is grown here. Were that number to increase to 25%, it could create about 27,000 jobs with about $868 million in wages, according to Converse.

“That’s pretty significant. It will probably be a long time coming, but even if we could get to 10%, that’s 8,000 jobs. That’s a bit more feasible,” he says.

Lake-to-River already sees an increase in sales from the local-food movement. Myers says sales in the first quarter of this year were about $5,000 higher than the same period last year.

“If we follow through with that through the end of the year, we’ll sell about 45% more local food than we did last year,” she says.

The next step is the coming addition of the Lake-to-River grocery store on Elm Street. Food distributed to the co-op will be sold daily, rather than once a week at each farmers market.

“It will really address the food desert problem in this area,” says Gianna Cioffi, one of Lake-to-River’s managers. “We’ll do surveys to find out what people want there. It will empower the people in this area to realize that this is really in their hands.”

Lake-to-River operates the Double Up Food Bucks program where customers using food stamps and EBT cards can double the money they have to spend on food.

“If they spend $10, they get $20. If they give $20, they get $40 to use at the market,” Converse says, noting the program is increasing in popularity. “When you buy a meal at McDonald’s for $3 or a basket of strawberries for $3, the pressure is to buy the fast food. But introducing people to quality food is helping some and they’re beginning to accept it,” he relates.

Mercy Health helps fund the program, Converse says, and just a few blocks away from the food co-op’s steadily growing Elm Street campus, Lake-to-River hosts a monthly food market at St. Elizabeth Hospital.

The market is open to the public but is partially aimed at hospital employees who can use paycheck deduction in lieu of paying at the market.

“It ties in with how dismally poor Ohio is when it comes to chronic disease,” Rosenthal says. “It’s a huge undertaking to get people to understand the impact what they eat has on them and to get them to eat better.”

Lake-to-River is also working to build a new business climate around locally grown food with the opening in 2009 of the Common Wealth Kitchen Incubator and the future opening of the Elm Street Café, planned for later this year. At the incubator, customers can rent space by the hour to prepare local food the co-op acquires or attend cooking classes that use the food held in the incubator.

For those renting the space, part of the appeal is the ability to sell their food, whether it’s at the markets or on their own. The kitchen is licensed commercially, so all food prepared there can be sold, helping to sustain some chefs and bakers until they can get their own kitchens running.

“We’re working to close the loop, from production to processing to serving,” says Miller, the co-op president. “Will they make a living from [using the incubator]? Maybe not. But they can start, make some money and grow it as they want.”

At the café next door to the incubator, a rotating menu, based on what those renting the kitchen make, will be featured.

“It may be muffins and smoothies one morning and then cookies and soup the next,” Rosenthal says. “It will be a breakfast and lunch restaurant that’s always shifting.”

But perhaps the best-known aspect of Lake-to-River is the online marketplace, where consumers can purchase food from food hub farmers and food producers and pick up their orders at the hub offices.

“Are you going to drive to 20 farms every week to get what you need? Or make it to a market every weekend?” asks Cioffi, who manages the online market. “Probably not. Our service takes 30 producers, puts them in one place, lets people order and has them delivered.”

And for those contributing products such as vegetables, eggs and meat, the food hub creates a network of like-minded people, all of whom have bought into the local-food movement. Miller cites a recent phone call she received about someone looking to get into urban farming as an example of food co-op’s network.

“She called to ask where she could buy colored chicken eggs because she wanted to make something and sell it on the online market,” Miller says. “She’s not ready yet, but wanted to use the co-op’s resources to push her business idea forward.”

And for the co-founders of Lake-to-River’s parent organization, Converse and Rosenthal are pleased to see their effort take off and expand.

Rosenthal looks back to some of the markets put on in Youngstown during its heyday and sees something to aspire to.

“At some of the old markets here, not only would a family come to buy one watermelon, but stores would come in and buy a truckload of them,” she says. “It was efficient that way.”

The task Converse and Rosenthal face, she adds, is more difficult because they had to start from the ground up.

For Converse, seeing low-income families increasingly take advantage of Lake-to-River’s program is been the best reward.

“Creating a farmers market that’s not an upscale thing is pretty exciting. I get more excited when someone from a low-income area walks to us than when someone drives in in a Mercedes and spends a lot of money,” he says with a laugh. “Giving people in some of these neighborhoods a shot at [healthful food] feels good.”

Pictured: Pat Rosenthal and Jim Converse, co-founders of Lake-to-River’s parent organization Common Wealth Inc., have worked to improve people’s health around Youngstown since 1986. Lake-to-River was created out of Common Wealth’s farmers markets.

Copyright 2023 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.