Local food hub strives to be new heart of NH community
KEARSARGE, N.H. (AP) — Sitting on a box in the middle of a dusty floor surrounded by unfinished counters, paint supplies and boxes, Hanna Flanders, 29, of Sunapee summed up a guiding philosophy behind the Kearsarge Food Hub.
“We really think that every town and community needs a heart where food is purchased or consumed or made in some way including local ingredients,” she said.
Flanders and others at the Food Hub are filling a void in Bradford, a town with a convenience store and a couple pizza places but no market. For one-stop shopping, residents drive to the Market Basket miles away in Warner or the Hannaford in New London. Local products are available here and there or at weekend farmers markets, but those options don’t realistically replace weekly groceries for most people.
To offer a solution, the group started a farm stand in 2015 that grew to become Sweet Beet Market, which opened inside a long-empty inn at 11 West Main St. in 2016. Sweet Beet serves as the retail arm under the nonprofit umbrella of the Kearsarge Food Hub, which runs various outreach programs as well.
In May, the market closed for renovations to the entire first floor, including the corner used by Sweet Beet. Flanders, her co-workers and others grabbed their tools and got to work. They were able to reopen Sweet Beet Market on Saturday, just in time to hold a big celebration in conjunction with Bradford’s Independence Day festivities this coming weekend.
“Bradford itself was definitely in need of local food,” said Flanders, the outreach coordinator for the hub. “We were hoping to fill a grocery store need of local goods, not just the fun farmers market community vibe, but also reliable local goods every day.”
The idea of the Food Hub came about in 2014, when Flanders and some fellow Kearsarge Regional High School alumni came back from college to what they felt was a disconnected community. They saw local food as a way to bring people together.
“In a society that thrives on individualism and that kind of thing, I think we were all a little lost, and (asking) how to reconnect together,” said farm manager and co-founder Pierre Hahn, 30, of Bradford. “I found the simplest way to do that was through food. Everything is so divisive right now, whether you’re on the left or the right, Republican, Democrat, everyone can come together in a group over good food.”
It started with a field and farm stand in the spring of 2015. It was a chance for the group to learn how to grow their own food and build a place for different small-scale producers and consumers to meet — a food hub.
“There is a need for someone to step in, coordinate all this amazing stuff going on, coordinate all the farmers, aggregate all their goods,” said Flanders, who noted that farmers today are no longer just producers but also work as their own vendors, distributors and marketers.
That held true for the Food Hub. Over the past few years, the group has found a way to track the ever-changing supplies of more than 30 farmers and other producers, base their orders on consumer demand and organize Sweet Beet Market displays so shoppers know exactly where their food is coming from.
After moving back and forth between the summer farm stand and a tiny indoor winter venue, an opportunity for a permanent space arose in 2016 when Unless LLC run by Mike Bauer and Michael James, purchased the long abandoned inn on West Main Street.
Bauer and James were already supporters of the Food Hub, and moving Sweet Beet Market from the field to the old inn solidified a natural partnership.
“I feel great about it. I’m 100 percent behind it and want to help them sort of see their vision here. It’s kind of a shared vision,” said Mike Bauer, who wanted the building to serve the community in some way and not just end up as apartments.
“Bradford’s a small, little place that used to have a downtown with a market and a lot of small stores. There’s a big supermarket that went in the next town over and pretty much shut down the small mom-and-pop IGA that was here. That was kind of the center of town and where everybody would meet and see each other, and for a number of years that’s been gone, so I really, really want to try to bring that back,” he said.
The market moved in fall 2016. Since then, Unless LLC and the Food Hub have collaborated on that shared vision and have made extensive improvements to the ground floor. Along with the newly renovated market that opened last week, a shared commercial kitchen and bakery space available for lease will open later this summer, followed by a new business, The Village Cafe. Plans for the rest of the building include offices and other types of multi-use community spaces with perhaps some apartments on the third floor.
As state and local governments are desperately trying to discourage young Granite Staters from moving away, Flanders, Hahn and the other founders are putting down roots in the place they grew up. Troubled by a disconnected community and threats to local farming, the group chose to get down in the dirt and take action, not just lament cultural trends.
“I think millennials have this reputation for not conforming or whatever, but it’s a good thing,” Flanders said. “I think it’s an asset because we see things and we’re not cool with it. We’re not just going to go out and get jobs and be drones. We’re going to create something that we believe in.”
Almost four years in, Hahn is still baffled that his co-founders all had similar feelings about local food and community and that everyone was willing to act.
Flanders said she hopes the work they are doing inspires the formation of other organizations to look at their own local food markets.
“We’re hoping this can be a model for each and every town, at least to some degree, in terms of having a spot to go for local food,” she said.