Shon Rainford asked the crowd gathered in a former baggage area at Worcester’s Union Station Thursday to use their imagination and think of the potential the space had.
At the time the space was filled with the city’s Christmas decorations and a tarp hung in the middle, but Rainford, director of Worcester Regional Food Hub, explained what it will look like after renovations.
Before the tour, Sen. Ed Markey, Rep. Jim McGovern, and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito announced nearly $3.5 million in funding to construct the new headquarters for the Food Hub in the space. New congressional earmarks funding accounts for $3 million of the funding and $494,000 came from the Baker and Polito administration’s Food Security Infrastructure Grant Program.
That funding comes in addition to $1 million that was allocated from the city’s discretionary American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) stimulus, $100,0000 from MassDevelopment’s Collaborative Workspace Program and $100,000 from the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts.
The Food Hub connects local farmers to restaurants, schools and other markets and acts as an incubator for local businesses, giving them commercial kitchen space they need to produce their products.
The current space at the Greendale’s People’s Church only has one commercial kitchen, which limits the number of businesses that can use it.
The new headquarters will feature six commercial kitchens, a retail area for businesses to sell their products, a multipurpose events and classroom space and has room for cold and dry storage of food and equipment.
Even with just one kitchen, Rainford said the Food Hub has been able to launch more than 100 businesses.
One of those businesses was Bali Marle, launched by husband and wife Marle and James Towne in 2019.
The businesses is inspired by Marle’s Indonesian roots and sells spices, pastes and dry rubs and spicy peanuts and sunflower seeds all with Indonesian inspired-spices.
It’s hard to schedule time in the current Food Hub space, according to Marle, since so many businesses are trying to use just one kitchen.
Seeing the new space gave Marle hope, she said, and also could be an opportunity to expand their business. With more kitchen space available, Marle said she’s considering expanding into grab-and-go meals.
In addition to having a retail space for vendors like Bali Marle to sell their products, the new headquarters will also have indoor farmers markets year-round on Saturday and Sunday mornings, according to Rainford.
They hope to break ground on the new headquarters in the next few months, Rainford said, with the goal of opening in early spring 2023.
As for how Food Hub chooses what business will get to use the kitchens once the space opens, Rainford said they welcome everyone that meets food safety requirements and has the necessary permits and insurance.
The Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce is the fiscal sponsor of the Food Hub and Vice President of Government Affairs and Public Policy Alex Guardiola said Union Station was chosen for the headquarters because of its access to transportation, which makes it accessible for all of their entrepreneurs.
“It’s also a building that we think should be activated,” Guardiola said.
Rainford first walked into the Union Station space three and a half years ago, after Chamber President and CEO Tim Murray suggested the 6,000 square foot underutilized space for the Food Hub, Rainford said.
“It’s been a long process, but we’re super excited,” Rainford said.
Architects and engineers are putting final touches on blue prints for the space and the project will be put out to bid, Rainford said.
After the renovations, the kitchen area will “look like a hospital laboratory” since food preparation will be taking place, but the space will still retain the aspects that make it part of Union Station, according to Rainford.
“You’ll know you’re in a train station,” Rainford said as he assured the crowd that all of the bricks would stay, as well as some of the pillars.
Markey said the project, which will provide SNAP accessible local food in its retail space and will create “one stop shopping for food for everyone here at Union Station.”
“What I’m most excited about is that this development will be happening at Union Station,” Markey said, “Worcester is the heart of the commonwealth and Union Station is the heart of Worcester.”
Markey also credited the Food Hub “for reimagining the production to distribution chain for local farm by connecting regional producers to offer fresh healthy food directly to communities that need it most.”
Markey and McGovern both credited the Food Hub for bolstering the local food system during the pandemic. During the pandemic the Food Hub delivered produce from its farmers directly to individuals.
“The COVID-19 pandemic had laid bare just how fragile our supply chain is, disrupting it in ways that we could not have imagined just a few years ago,” McGovern said, “And the Biden administration has taken numerous steps to get supply chains back to normal, including measures that invest in local food supply chains. And this announcement today bolsters those efforts.”
The project is now fully funded, thanks to the funding announced Thursday.
“This is a reality,” McGovern said, “This is going to happen.”