Intern, E&M Class Give Boost to New Albion Food Hub

More than 20 students work with area entities to map out soon-to-open commercial kitchen/business incubator

By Jake Weber | December 12, 2014

Alice Lalone is a biology and business and organizations major, a member of the Prentiss M. Brown Honors Program, and a forward on the women's soccer team.
Alice Lalone is a biology and business and organizations major, a member of the Prentiss M. Brown Honors Program, and a forward on the women's soccer team.

Alice LaLone, '16, has known for some time that she wants an agriculture-focused business career.

The Ortonville native made progress along that path last summer as an intern for the Albion College Student Farm. During the just-concluded fall semester she developed more valuable skills, as the first intern for the soon-to-open Albion community Food Hub, where she put her experience and interest to the test in helping to develop a new and exciting community initiative.

A "food hub," as opposed to a food pantry, "is usually a place to aggregate produce, like a farmer's market," LaLone explains. The city's plan, however, is more ambitious. "We need a business incubator, to allow people to start up food-related businesses," she explains.

As a result, later this month Albion's Food Hub will open at 112 W. Erie St. not just with an indoor farmer's market, but with a commercial kitchen that will be available to the entire community. LaLone explains that, primarily, the kitchen will allow small producers such as beekeepers or bakers to process foods for retail sale, following safety standards and even providing nutrition and ingredient labeling.

Such entrepreneurs "probably don't want the risk involved with purchasing a commercial kitchen," LaLone explains. "With the Food Hub, they can essentially rent our kitchen, and test the market while they develop their business."

While business incubation is the kitchen's primary focus, LaLone notes that it will serve many other uses. Private individuals or professional caterers may also rent the kitchen for large-scale cooking projects. Albion Innovation, a nonprofit organization providing free food in Albion, has storage space in the Food Hub building and may utilize the kitchen to prepare food as well.

‘It's Important to Get It Right’

As an intern for a program so new it doesn't even have an office (LaLone worked out of the Albion Economic Development Corporation building), LaLone did everything from grant review to marketing to community relations. "One of the most important things I've learned is the different uses of language," she says. "I read a lot of grants, wrote marketing pieces, and talked to farmers. There are three different types of language you use and it's important to get it right."

While LaLone was essentially the Food Hub's "boots on the ground," she was one of 22 Albion College students involved in the project this semester. The Hub was also a case study for an economics and management class taught by Vicki Baker and Joy Nakfoor, who had students doing supplemental work on ordinances and zoning, healthy food availability in Albion, local restaurant interest in local ingredients, and farmers' interest in a year-round market.

"Our group presented some proposed ordinances to the Albion Planning Commission to make a community garden a possibility," said Landon Lefler, '15. "From this project we learned all that goes into city planning. It also really opened up our eyes to how many people are trying to better the community in dealing with food."

"I consider this a win-win," says Baker of the class projects. "Our students were able to immerse themselves in the community, engage with business owners, and understand the needs of this community. In turn, their work and effort produced research and data that can support the Food Hub. And, the students got some great experience in the process."

LaLone also sees how "dealing with food" will strengthen the city. "When I came to Albion, I thought there wasn't a lot going on here and that wouldn't change. But now I know that things are happening in Albion, and I'm excited for the future," she says. "This new 'Food Central' will help incubate new businesses and hopefully put people in those downtown storefronts."