WATERBURY, Conn. (WTNH) — The Waterbury Regional Food Hub has opened in downtown Waterbury to support local farms struggling amid the COVID-19 pandemic and bring fresh produce to those living in the urban ‘food desert.’
It’s a new way to connect farmers with hungry people during these crazy times. They called it a soft opening, but there was still a line outside Brass City Harvest’s new food hub.
“It’s a little frantic, as you can imagine,” said Brass City Harvest Executive Director Sue Pronovost. “New equipment, we’re learning things.”
We hear about farmers unable to sell their goods, plowing their crops back into the ground and we see empty shelves in grocery stores and hungry people. Also, schools and restaurants buy a lot of produce, and most of them are closed right now.
“The farms are going through extremely tough times,” Pronovost said. “Everybody’s having to change their business model. Everybody’s going online, going to more retail sales versus wholesale.”
Alex Arisco, the owner of Arisco Farms in Cheshire is suffering just like many farmers around Connecticut in the pandemic. Normally, he can bank on profits from the beautiful array of flowers and plants in his greenhouse. But, not this year.
“Having it a little rough right now,” he said. “We’ve never been through this. We lost a lot of sales because schools are closed; fundraisers weren’t there for us this Spring.”
Now with the hub open, it can help farmers like Alex. Administrators will buy produce from local farmers, thoroughly clean it with new technology, and sell the food at the hub to groups and individuals at a discounted price.
The new hub is located at the corner of East Liberty and Mill Streets, in a part of the city that’s experienced tough times lately.
State Representative Geraldo Reyes (D-Waterbury) grew up playing sandlot ball on that piece of property, now he is among the shoppers getting fresh produce cheaper than in most neighborhood stores.
“I have to say it, sometimes things are maybe a little overpriced in the corner bodegas,” Reyes said. “These here, you can meet great price points for the people in the community.”
Sue Pronovost, the Executive Director of Brass City Harvest, fought hard for the food hub to be built. She feels it can bring new life to that part of the city by making healthy, new food options more accessible to people in that area, an area known as a ‘food desert’ because of the lack of grocery stores nearby.
There is an important step between farmer and customer. Everything goes through a state of the art washer that eliminates all the bad stuff, from listeria to ecoli to, of course, the novel coronavirus.
“It eliminates human food pathogens– Listeria, E. coli, Salmonella– viruses like Norovirus, human Coronavirus, and COVID-19,” Pronovost said.
Pronovost also believes it’ll help to produce more green for local farmers’ bottom lines.
“This is a game-changer for Waterbury, for this neighborhood, and also for the state of Connecticut because it has regional impacts.”
After the produce goes through the washer, workers bag it and store it in boxes in a special cooler with a purple light.
“It’s on 24/7. It bathes the produce,” said Pronovost. “The boxes, the containers — everything in UV sterilization constantly.”
The Regional Food Hub is all about supporting Connecticut farmers. It’ll be open every Thursday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. They may expand down the road if and when more produce becomes available. They are also hiring up to 20 people from the local neighborhood.
It’s not just for the neighborhood. Jeff Fryer drove in from Southbury, choosing this over his local supermarket.
“A couple things. One is to support the local business and farms,” said Fryer. “Two would be fresh.”
The hope is the hub will also show businesses can thrive in that part of Waterbury and spur investment in the future. The hub is built on land that used to be a brownfield site.
“They do free delivery for the low-income and the seniors and it helps other community members get down to a local farmers market and it also creates jobs,” said Waterbury State Rep. Stephanie Cummings.
The Food Hub is selling flowers and plants grown on Connecticut farms to help them profit from those, as well.
It cost about $4 million to build. The money came from federal and state agencies and the City of Waterbury.
“This is an incredible demonstration of what we can do with our contaminated properties after they’ve been properly cleaned,” Rep. Cummings said.