Partner Spotlight: Lake to River Food Cooperative

It’s November, which signals the shifting from fall’s golden hours to the silvery shades of winter. And, for many, November is also the beginning of the holiday season. Though our holiday celebrations will look very different this year, one of the essential elements at the center of many holiday traditions will stay the same: food. 

At HCP, we always have food on our minds. But, this year especially, it’s been top of mind of many. As we approach the 9 month mark of living through a pandemic, we’ve all heard or read or experienced heartbreaking stories about how COVID-19 has affected families. Throughout our communities, families have found themselves in incredibly difficult situations not only because of the virus itself but also because of the consequences from necessary closures or adjustments to schools, employers, businesses, and other service providers enacted to slow the spread and keep people safe. 

Mahoning Valley Food Access Resource Map

These disruptions have resulted in more or higher barriers to food access for many residents throughout the Mahoning Valley. In the early days of the pandemic, HCP partners quickly pooled and pulled informational resources together to create the COVID-19 Health and Wellness Resource Guide, and Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership spearheaded the launch of Mahoning Valley Together, another source of curated informational resources to offer help and direction to residents in need. In the spring, we shared stories about how HCP partners came together to organize food distribution and delivery efforts to seniors and other vulnerable neighbors in our communities. Other HCP partners put their heads together to help create the Food Access Resource Map, which pinpoints locations for food pantries, grocery stores that offer the SNAP Double Up program, and other food access points. Several of these partners were recently recognized by the Association of Fundraising Professionals-Mahoning Shenango Chapter for their dedication serving the people of the Mahoning Valley, especially during challenging times like these.

For November, HCP would like to recognize a partner who helped facilitate, participate in, and support several of these important food distribution efforts: Staging and preparing ACTION’s Grab ‘n Go meals for seniors and Snack ‘n Snatch meals for youth; staging and preparing Mercy Health’s Produce Prescription Boxes; and donating supplies for the Senior Support Action Group’s ongoing food delivery program. The Lake to River Food Co-Operative, Cultivate: A Co-Op Cafe, and the closely affiliated Commonwealth Kitchen Incubator transformed into a bustling food preparation, packaging and distribution center.

A Message and a Mantra

The Lake to River Food Cooperative’s message about the many benefits of buying and eating local food was able to be shared to new audiences through these efforts. The healthy meals and fresh produce provided through these programs offered solutions to immediate needs—feeding individuals and families in need—and, hopefully, some longer term benefits—more customers choosing to buy local—as awareness grows of the many local farmers and food based businesses that are close by.  

As the Lake to River Food Cooperative inches closer to celebrating its 10 year anniversary next year, HCP would like to share their story, celebrate some successes, and highlight the multiple benefits buying local and eating local have for residents’ health as well as the health of our communities.

Growth of the Lake to River Food Cooperative over the Years

Melissa Miller, President of Lake to River Board of Directors and Owner of Miller Livestock | Photo from the Business Journal

Lake-To-River Food Cooperative is a member-owned, multi-level cooperative of food producers, processors, and institutional and retail buyers who grow, add value to, market, and prepare agricultural products in the Mahoning Valley and throughout northeast Ohio. Lake to River has 22 farmers and value-added food entrepreneurs. To support its members, Lake to River provides marketing, sales, aggregation and delivery of products including fruit, vegetables, grass-fed and conventionally raised meats, eggs, locally produced cheese, granola, peanut butter and much more.

Established in 2011, Lake to River has succeeded in growing its sales more than 300% over the years. The Co-op’s uniqueness lies in its multi-level stakeholder structure putting producers and workers at all levels of the food value chain into a cooperative, rather than competitive production and delivery system. Capturing value for others within the co-op through marketing, distribution and value-adding helps all members retain value; this retained value can be passed up and down the value chain to help strengthen sustainable and profitable ways to get more fresh, whole, locally grown food directly to consumers and retain more wealth for producers. 

In short, this model allows Lake to River members to work together as collaborators rather than competitors. The Cooperative structure, which has members at all levels of the organization, means there are more people available to share stories that show the worth of agriculture and locally grown food to build community and increase economic opportunity for farmers and food entrepreneurs.

While recognizing that household budgets are often tight, Lake to River is optimistic that there can be a shift in food purchasing priorities. Instead of searching out the cheapest food possible, consumers will hopefully begin to see their purchases as investment in preserving and growing local and regional food capacity. Dollars spent on produce or products from Lake to River members stay in the community rather than leaving to benefit an out of state corporation. 

Lake to River Goes Online

To make buying local more convenient, accessible, and attractive to new customers, Lake to River identified the need to simplify inventory, implement a system for order-taking, and make products more accessible to customers. The Lake to River Online Market is now used by schools, restaurants and individual customers to quickly identify the range of products available and conveniently purchase them; different databases for different price structures, promotes producers and processors throughout the region and provides valuable information about buying habits to aid in future planning for crops, staff and infrastructure. The e-commerce site’s functionality and processes provide a convenient, fully integrated platform to buy, sell and distribute local food.

Cultivate: A Co-Op Cafe Storefront on Elm St.

In 2015, Lake to River celebrated the long awaited grand-opening of Cultivate: A Co-op Cafe. Cultivate is located on the Elm St. Corridor just north of Youngstown State University. The cafe is described as:

Powered by local farmers and producers Cultivate: A Co-op cafe serves fresh seasonal offerings, a cool grab-and-go smoothie bar and sandwich shop serving locally sourced farm-to-table fare. Located just blocks from the YSU campus and dorms, Ursuline High School, and the historic Wick Park neighborhood in Youngstown, Cultivate is [the spot] for delicious, healthy [food] for students and the neighborhood where we live and work.

The online marketplace, the cafe, and farmers markets provide Lake to River Cooperative members with several ways to find and buy delicious, local food while providing support to farmers, growers, entrepreneurs, and the local economy.

The Cooperative’s Secret Ingredient for Success: Collaboration

The shared effort it takes to open and operate Cultivate and the Lake to River Online Market has been an enormous undertaking. The push to create Cultivate came, because the Co-op wanted to sell products to local restaurants and at the time were not able to find buyers as there was little interest in locally raised/produced food. There was also a significant push back on price. So, when push came to shove, the Co-op members decided to open their own place to show people that it had value and the results were delicious AND important to the community.

Members of Lake to River have grown to become even better cooperators by marketing each other’s products (you can buy Middlefield Cheese at Angiuli’s new store) and referring customers each other’s way. Co-op members also share learning experiences (Good Agriculture Practices trainings, retail sales seminars), deliver each other’s products, and work collectively to foster and grow a new business appropriately named, Cultivate.

Community building is a central focus for Lake to River. The Cooperative has established relationships with numerous community organizations, including faith-based groups resulting in regular, monthly sales of farm products to local churches for fundraising events. One remarkable example of an early success was at St. Patrick Church, Youngstown, which purchased more than 125 pounds of locally raised ground beef from River Bend Farm, a Lake to River member, for its monthly fundraising spaghetti dinner. Fr. Ed Noga, pastor of the church in this economically hard-hit neighborhood, points out to the entire Mahoning Valley at every opportunity the importance of “keeping it local to help grow our communities. It takes a little bit more effort, but it makes a difference.”

ACTION Grab n Go hot meals being prepared by Cultivate Cafe and Kitchen Incubator staff

Because of the significant increase in need for food due to the pandemic, Lake to River and Cultivate developed a new faith-based partnership with the Alliance for Congregational Transformation Influencing Our Neighborhoods (ACTION) to prepare, assemble, and deliver healthy hot meals to seniors and other individuals who are vulnerable to the virus. The program initiated by ACTION began in April and ran into the summer, delivering more than 9,000 meals during that time. Cultivate and Kitchen Incubator staff along with ACTION volunteers worked hard to prepare a variety of healthy, tasty meals and coordinate delivery to dozens of households throughout Mahoning County over the many weeks the program was active. The program prepared and delivered 250 meals on Thursdays each week.

Once summer rolled around, ACTION expanded the partnership with Lake to River and Cultivate to include the Christ Centered Church and the Wick Park Neighborhood Association to offer pick up of healthy snacks for children and young adults. This program, called Snack ‘n Snatch, offered more than 2,000 healthy snacks to children and young adults in the nearby neighborhoods.

Over the years, Lake to River has developed a close relationship with the Mahoning Valley’s largest healthcare provider, Mercy Health. Lake to River helped to launch, promote and manage a farmers market at St. Elizabeth Health Center Main Campus which attracted physicians, nursing and administrative staff and the public. This market, now known as the Youngstown Farmers Market, outgrew this location and had to find a larger venue. For the 2018 and 2019 seasons, the Youngstown Farmers Market was located at the B&O Station. In 2020, the market managers decided to forgo a traditional market due to health and safety concerns for customers because of the pandemic. Market managers, partners, farmers, and customers are hopeful the market will be able to return in 2021.

Additionally, in collaboration with Mercy Health, Lake to River and Cultivate became a location that can redeem the Fruit and Vegetable Rx program vouchers. The Fruit and Vegetable Rx program provides a monthly voucher for $25 in local produce issued by a Mercy Health healthcare provider to patients with health issues that could be improved by eating healthier. This collaborative effort between Lake to River and Mercy Health helps bring in $20,000 in sales to farmers in Mahoning, Trumbull and Ashtabula counties annually and healthier food to the more than 700 patients enrolled in the program.

Mercy Health Fruit & Vegetable Rx Produce Box Drive Away at Cultivate

As was mentioned, this year, because of health and safety concerns related to the pandemic, this ongoing collaborative effort shifted from setting up a farmers market and became a produce box distribution operation. This partnership between Lake to River, Mercy Health, and community volunteers distributed more than 3500 boxes during the season to Mercy Health Fruit and Vegetable Rx patients in Mahoning and Trumbull counties. Additional partnerships with Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership, the Senior Support Action Group, and the SCOPE Senior Center helped the program reach Fruit and Veggie Rx patients in Trumbull County. The Fruit and Veggie Rx boxes were distributed at the Warren Farmers Market and volunteers from SCOPE and the Senior Support Action Group helped to deliver boxes that were not able to be picked up.

Commonwealth Inc. VISTA Abby Webb Worked Closely with Lake to River on Many Community Projects

Lake to River and Cultivate also believe in being good neighbors in the neighborhood. Working in partnership with neighborhood associations, community partners, and nearby businesses, Lake to River has participated in several events like the Northside Corn Roast, the Line Up Food Truck Fridays, Growing Elm Street Small Business Openhouses, Conversation Hour with English Center students, and public art installations. All of these events are more activities for Lake to River to share its message, and some samples, about the bountiful benefits of local food.

Lake to River continues to look for ways to raise awareness of the importance of buying from local farmers and food makers—it’s important to help preserve farms and green space, keeps money in our local economy and makes our communities healthier places to live and work for growers and eaters alike.

Press Clips 

Cultivate Featured as Backdrop for Ohio Department of Health Coronavirus PSA

Lake to River Co-Op Opens Northside Food Market

Cultivate Cafe: A Co-Op Near YSU

Cultivate Cafe: Fresh Food Close to Campus

Local Food Producers Make Their Way to Store Shelves