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    The city of Columbia is working to develop a local “food hub” and is hoping to have it operational sometime in 2015.
    The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food hub as, “a centrally located facility with a business management structure facilitating the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution and/or marketing of locally/regionally produced food products.” The USDA is promoting the development of food hubs because, by actively coordinating these activities along the value chain, food hubs are providing wider access to institutional and retail markets for small- to mid-sized producers, and increasing access of fresh healthy food for consumers, including underserved areas and food deserts.
    Paul Ellis, Columbia’s director of community and economic development, said he’s been actively investigating the possibility of starting a food hub. He said that they are essentially central places for anything related to local food to be considered, addressed and marketed, but that the particular focus the community takes varies from hub to hub.  
    “You will have farmers, local restaurateurs, processors and others involved,” Ellis said. “In some communities, you might have a really strong retail focus and in some others it might be more focused on distribution. The way we’re approaching the opportunity is that Columbia has the good fortune to be the interface between the urban part of the St. Louis Metro area and the rural part. Our front door is very urban and our back door is very rural. We’re thinking that it’s a natural interface.”
    Ellis said he didn’t know yet how many people would be interested in participating in a Columbia food hub, but there’s already a significant number involved in initial planning, and he’s hoping that, once word gets around, more food entrepreneurs will come to the fore.
    “There are people out there who are making food in their homes, getting rave reviews and building loyal followings,” Ellis said. “When they get to the point where they outgrow their kitchens, then what do they do?  For a lot of folks it means they go to a bigger city to find space and our community loses value. The food hub helps the local economy by keeping folks in our communities and keeping the jobs here where the enterprises started.”
    Ellis said that he is looking at buildings that could house the food hub and has a couple in mind — both in the city’s Main Street area. He said he sees this new effort as complementary to efforts of the newly-designated Main Street program.
    For years cities have devoted their economic development efforts toward attracting large manufacturers, Ellis said, but there is a greater focus now on nurturing local businesses.
    “The nice thing about a food hub is it’s not like an auto plant where you’re probably going to have one or two in an entire metro area,” Ellis said. “Any community that really wants to pursue a food hub probably can build one; the idea is replicable in a lot of places.”