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Why Louisville Is Betting Big on a Massive Food Wonderland

The city's planned FoodPort is part of a trend toward mixed-use food hubs.

Renderings of the planned FoodPort in Louisville, Kentucky. (OMA)

You’d be forgiven for mistaking the West Louisville FoodPort project for a theme park. Featuring carnivalesque roofs, a zigzag floor plan, and a bright red ball mounted in a central plaza, the latest mock-ups for the site (by the Rem Koolhaas design firm OMA) are the stuff of childhood fantasy—not your typical public-private partnership. The 24-acre complex, expected to break ground this fall, is the newest and most ambitious variation on a growing nationwide trend: the regional food hub.

The USDA defines a “food hub” as a business or organization that manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of locally sourced food products. Most but not all food hubs operate a physical warehouse space and trucks to move farmers’ wares, primarily to wholesale buyers such as restaurants, grocery stores, and school systems; some also sell retail to consumers. The one thing they all have in common is creating economies of scale for small and mid-sized farmers. Individually, these farmers wouldn't produce enough to reach large regional markets; together, linked by a food hub, they can.

Louisville's FoodPort project, created by the local nonprofit Seed Capital Kentucky, takes that model several steps further. Seed Capital originally conceived of the development as a food "hub" in 2013, but renamed it the "FoodPort" this year, after the concept evolved to incorporate a kitchen incubator, food truck plaza, demonstration farm, classrooms, and even an anaerobic digester to convert the facility’s organic waste back into usable energy. It’s not only the largest of this new breed of food hubs; according to FoodPort project director Caroline Heine, it’s the only one with this broad raft of services.

Market plaza and visitor center at the planned West Louisville FoodPort. (OMA)

In some ways the FoodPort is more like a mixed-use development than a conventional food hub. Most hubs are single-entity businesses or organizations, while the FoodPort focuses on co-locating existing businesses that are, as Heine puts it, “symbiotically related.”

Three companies that have already signed up—KHI Foods, The Weekly Juicery, and Star Distributed Energy—illustrate the point. Once The Weekly Juicery finishes pressing all the juice out of its kale, it can send the waste to the biodigester run by Star, completing the FoodPort’s “seed-to-waste food chain.” The juicer can also team up with KHI Foods, a processing company, to leverage their buying power with farmers operating out of the FoodPort. It’s not difficult to imagine food trucks and restaurants moving in to take advantage of these relational benefits in the future.

Demonstration farm at the planned West Louisville FoodPort. (OMA)

While Louisville might seem like a strange place to build such a massive gastronomic wonderland, it actually makes a lot of sense when you consider Kentucky’s history. Rolling terrain keeps the state’s farms small; today the average size of a Kentucky farm is about 163 acres, compared to the national average of 434 acres. For many years, thanks in part to federal subsidies, a family could make a very good living growing tobacco, the state’s dominant crop. Declining demand brought an end to the subsidies and forced many farmers to find other sources of income. But even now, 55 percent of Kentucky's land remains devoted to agriculture, and more than 60 percent of its farms make less than $10,000 a year. “We are the local food movement,” Heine says.

The FoodPort is, for all its architectural whimsy, a reflection of that heritage. It sits on the former site of the National Tobacco Company. It is also located in the heart of West Louisville, an area that’s been struggling since the Great Flood of 1937, one of the worst natural disasters in the nation’s history.

Louisville after the 1937 flood: Army engineers build a floating sidewalk to evacuate residents and bring supplies into the city. (AP)

Manufacturers abandoned West Louisville, once the center of the city, after the flood, and the scars of disinvestment are still visible to this day. The median household salary there is $22,578, less than half that for Louisville as a whole ($46,701), and its unemployment rate is 23.6 percent, nearly four times greater than Louisville's (6.6 percent).

Revitalizing this economically depressed area is a central mission of the FoodPort. The project is a public-private partnership, run by Seed Capital Kentucky on land purchased from the Louisville Metro government. It is an outgrowth of Mayor Greg Fischer's Vision Louisville agenda, and it dovetails with other development efforts, including the Louisville Loop project, which is extending bike paths across the city, and the Portland Investment Initiative, which aims to revive 80 blocks of warehouses and shotgun homes.

The FoodPort is located at the intersection of three West Louisville neighborhoods. (OMA)

The first phase of the FoodPort is slated to open in November 2016. Seed Capital Kentucky promises that the project will bring 250 permanent jobs to the area, along with workforce development and education programs. The nonprofit is currently working with residents to hammer out a community benefits agreement.

These lofty policy objectives put the FoodPort in line with some other hubs across the country. In New Orleans, Jack & Jake’s Public Market has set out to “address the market failures that have resulted in the under-utilization of local farms and seafood producers in the southeastern U.S.,” with public school delivery contracts and prepared food retail showcasing regional cuisine. The St. Louis Food Hub is part of a $120 million redevelopment project that includes new condos and apartments, and the Baltimore Food Hub will transform the former site of a 19th-century water pumping station into a kitchen incubator, canning facility, and more.

Demonstration farm at the planned West Louisville FoodPort. (OMA)

With a price tag of roughly $50 million, Louisville's FoodPort is significantly more expensive than other food hubs across the country. But it's on par with public-private partnerships in the U.S., which are mostly for buildings; between 1985 and 2010, the average value of these types of building contracts was about $60 million. Considering its wide array of services, the FoodPort is certainly comparable in scale to a school, a hospital, or a courthouse.

Jeff Farbman, a senior program associate with the National Good Food Network, is seeing more and more of these “grander vision” hubs nationwide. He says that while the basic aggregator model isn't going anywhere, there are clear advantages to these mixed-use developments, especially in dense and underserved urban areas. “If you have a city or philanthropic organization interested in reviving a city, locating [so-called] 'light industrial' is a great thing to do,” Farbman says. “You are talking about a bunch of jobs, the potential for multiple shifts, but you’re also talking about larger trucks. It’s unlikely to be located in the dense-population or high-wealth areas. I can see economically there is quite a bit of rationale for that.”

He has also observed increased interest and investment in "food with a story." "If you co-locate businesses, you create a shared excitement and it sort of feeds on itself," Farbman says. "Cities ... are waking up to the idea [that] food can be part of our identity."

Heine hopes that the FoodPort will do that for Kentucky—and help dispel the notion that local food is just for upper middle class yuppies. Seed Capital Kentucky believes it has identified significant unmet demand for local food in Louisville. According to a 2012 study, 70 percent of Louisville residents knowingly buy local food, and as many would buy more if they could find it.

In the long run, the FoodPort also stands a decent chance of becoming a draw for foodie pilgrims the world over, thanks to that flashy design by OMA. “It’ll be so beautiful that people will want to visit it,” says Heine.

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