Expanding Access to Local Food in Akron

“It’s like the nuclear fission of good stuff,” says Zac Rheinberger, describing Hattie’s Food Hub opening this summer in Akron.

He’s not exaggerating either. Hattie’s Food Hub feels like a one-stop shop for local food goodness, bringing together a retail store, educational programs, community space, a commercial kitchen and job-training opportunities all in one 4,400-square-foot, LEED-certified facility on a formerly vacant lot near the Akron Zoo.

Hattie’s Food Hub is just one of many initiatives of the Hattie Larlham organization, a Northeast Ohio-based nonprofit that provides skills coaching, and services to individuals with developmental disabilities. The organization is named eponymously after a service-minded nurse. As well as providing a supportive training environment, Hattie’s Food Hub creates a sustainable agriculture loop to benefit consumers and communities.

“We’ve put a lot of thought into it,” says Rheinberger, director of food operations and point person for Hattie’s Food Hub, Hattie’s Cafés, and Hattie’s Garden. “We identified a need for local farmers to be able to purvey in a direct way, as well as access processing facilities that help them create value-added products from their produce. At the same time, we’re breaking down barriers between the developmentally disabled and the greater community, as well as providing skills needed for our region’s growing agricultural economy.”

At Hattie Larlham, photo by Shane Wynn

At Hattie Larlham, photo by Shane Wynn

The idea for Hattie’s Food Hub was born five years ago during conversations between Hattie Larlham staff, Akron-area residents, and local farmers, all of whom identified a need for corner stores selling locally produced, nutritious items in underserved areas.

The year-round facility will stock produce and dairy from nearby Hattie’s Gardens and local farms, as well as tomato sauces, jams, pickles, and other shelf-stable items made onsite in the facility’s processing kitchen, which houses a flash freezer, industry-standard steam jacket kettle, braising table, stovetop, and convection oven.

One of the unique features of Hattie’s Food Hub is the opportunity for local entrepreneurs to participate in co-packing services, a method of production for value-added products in which producers provide ingredients to the kitchen, teach Hattie’s staff to create the product to their standards, and then pay per item for processing and packaging.

“It’s a win-win situation,” says Rheinberger. “We handle the products in an industry-standard way that’s consistent and safe, and save the producers save money by reducing their overhead and freeing them to focus on marketing. Since we’re focused on training, our employees learn skills for future job placement in our region’s growing food industry.”

Hattie’s Food Hub is partnering with other like-minded organizations, including OSU Extension and Summit County Public Health to offer community training classes, cooking demonstrations, canning instruction, and Good Agricultural Practices certification programs. They’ll also be providing produce to restaurants, such as Cuyahoga Falls’ Blue Door Café and Nuevo’s new location in downtown Cleveland.

Rheinberger hopes eventually to replicate this model in other areas of need in Northeast Ohio. “That’s what excites me most—not only imparting job skills to developmentally disabled individuals, but also providing solid foundational life skills and bringing that full circle within the local food economy.”

Beginning with their grand opening celebration on June 23, 2016, you can stop by Hattie’s Food Hub 10am–7pm Monday–Saturday at 395 Douglas St. in Akron. To learn more about Hattie Larlham’s initiatives, visit HattieLarlham.org.

—Story by Lia Lockert and photos by Shane Wynn