Corbin Hill Food Project: Building Racial Equity and Community Ownership

Across all of our efforts and initiatives, collaboration is at the core of our identity in terms of how we approach problems, how we seek solutions and how we work to generate results. That’s why we work with passionate, effective partners who have proven expertise, share our commitment and can help us best serve our community.

On June 14, the Bainum Family Foundation’s Food Security Initiative team and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ (MWCOG) Local Food Distribution Work Group co-hosted a convening at Busboys and Poets to spotlight the innovative work of the Corbin Hill Food Project, led by Dennis Derryck. The New York City-based Project works to enhance access to fresh, affordable food, and it has a long-term vision of achieving food sovereignty, racial equity and community ownership. According to its website, it “won’t stop until it’s available for all.” 

The Foundation and MWCOG offered this event as an opportunity for organizations working in the Washington, D.C., area to hear lessons learned and best practices from directly from Corbin Hill, as we all work together to build a more equitable food system right here in our region.

The post below is authored by Alicia LaPorte, Campaign Manager for Fair Farms and Steering Team Member for Chesapeake Foodshed Network. You can see her original post here.


Erica Martin
Program Associate, Food Security Initiative

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“Why do we exist? Are we just going to be another supplier of food for low-income folks?” Dennis Derryck first asked these questions of his team during the early stages of their new venture — the Corbin Hill Food Project — and he continues to raise the very same questions as his organization adapts and evolves to build a truly community- and impact-driven food hub serving New York City.

On Thursday, June 14, Mr. Derryck spoke to a packed house at Busboys and Poets (a Fair Farms partner) in Washington, D.C., to share his vision for the project as well as the successes and lessons learned since its 2010 launch. At the heart of this values-driven social enterprise is a greater emphasis on community ownership, sovereignty, power-shifting and building racial equity in food systems value and supply chains. The Corbin Hill Food Project ensures that the work is driven by the community, and that the experience goes beyond a mere economic transaction.

Derryck emphasizes that the Project’s work is “complicated and complex.” And trust us, it is. But to put it simply, the Corbin Hill Food Project works with a network of regional food distribution companies to bring fresh, healthy food sourced from small and mid-size farms to its community base in New York City. With 51% of investment dollars from women and 71% from African American and LatinX individuals, the Project’s focus on equity was ingrained in its work from the start and is also represented in its diverse volunteer base. With this foundation, the Project set out to “operationalize sovereignty,” as Mr. Derryck puts it, to build true community ownership.

What does it mean to operationalize sovereignty? Here’s one example.

A significant hurdle the Project initially faced was tackling the logistics of the “last-mile delivery.” This concept involves moving produce from the wholesale suppliers to the end consumer point of sale, often a distance of just a mile or less. Many of the Project’s community partners were too small to 1) meet minimum orders for delivery from traditional distributor companies or 2) cover the surcharge to exempt them from this rule. For instance, the Project’s target community in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood in north central Brooklyn, has 11 pre-schools, all serving fewer than 30 children each. These schools could not cover the $250 minimum order requirement, and they also did not have the refrigeration or storage to place larger orders so they could meet the threshold.

Initially, the Project purchased a box truck to manage these deliveries, but the team quickly realized that this was an unsustainable option (due to mileage costs, parking tickets and other hurdles), and moreover, it was not aligned with the Project’s commitment to community ownership. Mr. Derryck and his team came up with a simple yet innovative solution to manage logistics — utilizing resources and assets already within the community such as community taxi owners, rideshare drivers, religious organizations’ vehicles and support, and businesses already working in the area. Derryck explains, “Everything we’ve built on last-mile delivery is grounded in local sovereignty. We want the economic benefit to remain in the community.”

The Corbin Hill Food Project has developed and evolved its focus on a public-private partnership. Often when these types of cross-sector relationships are created, the private business is an outsider. But all communities have members with resources, assets and gifts they can share — and to successfully identify and leverage them, these partnerships require taking the time to build genuine relationships with the community.

Food hubs are rising as key solutions for building a healthier and more equitable food system — from farm to fork — for all. And as they increase in number, the Corbin Hill Food Project offers many valuable lessons, particularly underscoring the need for organizations to ensure their efforts transform an inequitable system and shift power to the communities they serve. “If communities aren’t involved every step of the way,” says Dennis Derryck, “all of the work we’re doing is not sustainable.”