Corbin Hill Food Project: Food Hub Goes Beyond Logistics to Build Racial Equity and Community Sovereignty

    June 20, 2018

By Alicia LaPorte, Fair Farms Campaign Manager and Chesapeake Foodshed Network Steering Team Member

Corbin Hill Food Project at Busboys and Poets
Photo: Sonia Keiner

“Why do we exist? Are we just going to be another supplier of food for low-income folks?” Dennis Derryck asked this question of his team during the early stages of their new venture – the Corbin Hill Food Project – and has continued to ask this tough question as his organization adapts and evolves to build a truly community driven and impactful food hub serving New York City.

Mr. Derryck spoke to a packed house last week at Fair Farms’ partner Busboys and Poets Restaurant in Washington, DC about his vision, successes, and lessons learned since the project launched in 2010. At the heart of this values-driven social enterprise is a greater emphasis on community ownership, sovereignty, power-shifting and building racial equity in food systems value and supply chains. Ensuring the work is driven by the community is of primary importance as is building the Project to be an experience rather than just an economic transaction.

Corbin Hill Food ProjectTo put it simply, and trust, us, this work is ”complicated and complex” Derryck emphasized, the Corbin Hill Food Project works with a network of regional food distribution companies to bring fresh, healthy food sourced from small and mid-size farms to their community base in the Bronx. The Project’s focus on equity was ingrained in their work from the start. This began with their staff – more than half of the founders are women and 70 percent are African American and Latinx – and is also represented in their diverse volunteer base. With this foundation, they set out to “operationalize sovereignty,” as Mr. Derryck put it, to build true community ownership.

What does it mean to operationalize sovereignty? Here’s one example:

A significant hurdle the Project initially faced was tackling the logistics of the “last mile delivery.” This concept entails moving their produce from the wholesale suppliers to the end consumer point of sale, often a distance of just a mile or less. Many of the Project’s community partners were too small to meet minimum orders for delivery from traditional distributor companies, or to cover the surcharge to exempt them from this rule. For instance, their target community in Bedford-Stuyvesant has 11 pre-schools, none with more than 30 children. These schools could not cover the $250 minimum order requirement, nor did they have the refrigeration or storage to place larger orders so they could meet the threshold.

Initially, the Project purchased a box truck to manage these deliveries, but the team quickly realized that this was not only an unsustainable option, due to mileage costs, parking tickets, and other hurdles, but also was not grounded in their focus on community ownership. Mr. Derryck and his team came up with a simple yet innovative solution; utilize resources and assets already within the community—community taxi owners, rideshare drivers, religious organizations’ vehicles and support, and businesses already working in the area—to manage these logistics. “Everything we’ve built on last mile delivery is grounded in local sovereignty. We want the economic benefit to remain in the community,” Derryck explained.

Corbin Hill Food Project Operationalizing Sovereignty

The Corbin Hill Project has developed an evolved focus on a public-private partnership. Often when these types of cross-sector relationships are created, the private business is an outsider. But all communities have members with resources, assets, and gifts that they can share. It just requires taking the time to build genuine relationships with the community to identify what can be brought to the table.

As food hubs are increasingly seen as key solutions for building a healthier and more equitable food system for all, from farm to fork, the Corbin Hill Food Project offers many lessons. Perhaps most important is the need to always ask yourself how your efforts are transforming an inequitable system and shifting power to the communities your work serves. “If communities aren’t involved at every step,” explained Dennis Derryck, “all of the work we’re doing is NOT sustainable.”

Thank you to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ Local Food Distribution Work Group and Bainum Family Foundation for convening this event, Busboys and Poets for being such great hosts, and Dennis Derryck for sharing his wisdom.

* Are you a food justice leader in the Chesapeake Foodshed interested in leading a team of stakeholders in developing regional equity guidelines and furthering the work of organizations like the Corbin Hill Food Project? Apply to be a co-chair for the Chesapeake Foodshed Network’s Community Ownership Empowerment and Prosperity Action Team!  Applications are due next Wednesday, June 27. Check out the Invitation to Participate here and visit our website to learn more.  An informational webinar can be found here.  Email with questions.


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