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County Food Hub breaks ground with proud supporters

At the official ground breaking ceremony, (back) Elizabeth Crombie, Sophiasburgh councillor Bill Roberts, MPP Todd Smith, Sophiasburgh students Bethany Foster and Alison; school board chair, Shannon Binder, (front) County Food Hub vice-chair Todd Foster and County Food Hub chair Mike Farrell.

Story and photos by Sharon Harrison
In a ceremonial groundbreaking, the Prince Edward County Food Hub was officially launched at Sophiasburgh Central School Friday before an invited crowd.

County Food Hub vice-chair Todd Foster and County Food Hub chair Mike Farrell marking the ground breaking.

Instead of shovels hitting the proverbial frozen ground outside, County Food Hub chair Mike Farrell and vice-chair Todd Foster, brandished a gold crow bar and mallet inside to mark the major achievement.

After several years of planning and nine months of fundraising, the County Food Hub officially celebrated the start of building. The project will see 5,800-square-feet of surplus space within the school undergo a change of use to become an innovative community food hub.

In September 2018, the County Food Hub and Hastings Prince Edward District School Board (HPEDSB) signed a five-year lease. The agreement will see Sophiasburgh Central School on County Road 15 in Demorestville remain open as an active school while accommodating the County Food Hub. The portion of the west wing to be used by the County Food Hub includes five surplus classrooms and a storage area.

Sophiasburgh councillor Bill Roberts orchestrated the morning’s proceedings, which heard from Food to Share founder Glen Wallis, school board chair Shannon Binder, PEC mayor Steve Ferguson, MPP Todd Smith and Elizabeth Crombie, on behalf of supporters.

Roberts also read a note sent by Bay of Quinte MP Neil Ellis who was unable to attend due to commitments in Ottawa. In part, it read:

“Repurposing excess space in a school to extend the commercial and educational capacities for local food sustainability is something that everyone here today should be very proud to support.”

“This has been made possible by the vision and persistence of the hub board, the remarkable generosity of donors from across all County sectors who stepped up to the plate in a very timely fashion and from the collaborative efforts of municipal, provincial and federal partners. We demonstrated a readiness to stand together with the community in true non-partisan fashion to lend their voices to a very, very good idea and this idea took root and became reality because of these combined efforts.”

Roberts said the day was a celebration of what a vibrant community partnership can do.

“We are developing a model for rural education and new ways of making use of global school resources for the benefit of the community, community health and educational access for our wonderful students,” he said. “And we are developing a unique made-in-the-County solution with the County Food Hub.”

Roberts described the hub as a resource that supports innovation, entrepreneurship and training for a remarkable local food industry.

Farrell introduced the board of directors which includes Todd Foster, vice-chair and head of capital improvement sub-committee; Sacha Squair, treasurer; Melissa Tran, secretary and developing communications lead; Paula Teixeira Leite, school and community outreach; Dr. Charles Pascal, governance and educational adviser and chef Albert Ponzo, director of operations culinary.

“I am so excited for the future and making our vision and mission come to light as this groundbreaking event marks the start of our capital improvements,” said Farrell.

“It turned out to be a two years ago and counting journey and it continues on for our now federally-incorporated, not-for-profit PEC Food Hub,” said Farrell, who acknowledged it was Roberts who helped galvanize the group early on in the accommodation review process.

Farrell spoke of early meetings with Foster and Roberts and a number of other concerned residents who asked what could be done to save a vibrant school with a rich rural heritage and a well-deserved reputation as a warm and inviting place to teach and learn.

“One thing that stuck with me from that meeting was that it’s not enough to just say no to these types of things. It’s vitally important to provide a viable practical alternative,” said Farrell. “Looking around the room now makes me both humble and proud that did we ever succeed on that account.”

“So much has been done since we received the green light to move to implementing our mission to create a food sustainability and service hub in a rural K-8 school, a potentially replicable model for rural schools across our great province and our great nation,” he said.

PEC mayor Steve Ferguson spoke to a community town hall meeting he attended about a year ago where one of the last slides in the presentation said, ‘We will do this’.

“The hub and this initiative illustrates what Prince Edward County does so very very well – whereby groups of people gather, a need is identified, resources are solicited and collected, plans developed, plans executed,” said Ferguson.

“I can’t tell you how important it is to the community, to the board, to the province, and let’s not forget the kids who are still going to be part of the school,” he said.

Ferguson extended his congratulations to Farrell and Foster, and Bill McMahon and Kevin Gale who got behind this project; to Charles Albert and all the other donors and supporters of the project. “I want to wish you all the best of luck and we are here to support you as this unfolds over the coming months.”

MPP Todd smith noted the importance of the project for the school and the community.

“You could see the positivity in the air happening and it just continued to gather momentum and I can tell you there were some lofty goals,” said Smith. “These guys were like a dog on a bone and were relentless. This has the potential to be such a catalyst for growth in our community,” added Smith. “There are so many great innovators in this community doing so many outstanding and interesting things, but I am really looking forward to see what’s happening here a couple of years from now.”

Smith noted the rural economic development fund contributed $90,000 to the project.

Roberts remarked that people from all sectors of the County stepped up to the plate in a very big way raising more than $800,000 in nine months and called it a miracle of generosity in PEC.

While the list of donors isn’t complete as some have yet to respond and other have opted to remain anonymous, a few include The County of Prince Edward, John M. and Bernice Parrott Foundation, Prince Edward Lennox Addington Community Futures Development Corporation, Bel-Con Design Builders, Lehigh Cement Company, Carson Brewing Company, Picton Home Hardware, Prince Edward District Women’s Institute, Quite Educational Museum and Archives, Demorestville Women’s Institute, Farm Credit Canada, The Royal Hotel, Peter Fleming Memorial Fund and Slow Food PEC. Among the individual donors: Elizabeth Crombie, Greg Sobara, Neil Carbone, Sonja Smits and Chuck Pascal.

As a supporter of the food hub’s vision, Elizabeth Crombie spoke on behalf of all donors.

“We will all benefit from the opportunities provided with this incredible initiative,” said Crombie. “Food sustainability and related activities will of course play a key role in ensuring we increase the food security in the County and we certainly need that.”

“For those to whom much is given, much is expected,” she said, adding, “I am not personally surprised at the number of donors and total amount raised. Great ideas attract friends and their capital.”

Shannon Binder, school board chair said she was pleased to celebrate the important next step for the hub.

“Being new to the board, I am excited by the possibilities that these types of partnerships bring to the HPEDSB and to the community,” she said. “I am sure we will learn a great deal about these new partnerships, the local community and supporting excellent programming for students. On behalf of the board of trustees, we look forward to seeing this project more forward and thrive.”

Having partnered with the County Food Hub, Food to Share will be the very first Food Hub resident using the space as a headquarters store prep location for a food distribution point.

Founder Glen Wallis explained that Food to Share not only prepares meals for the food banks, but they distribute food to them that is received from local farms and stores.

“Lots of people have misunderstandings about exactly what we do because we have tried to do so much in so little time,” said Wallis. “We also provide lessons for children and adults in cooking and we look forward to this venue being our new home. It is an amazing accomplishment. I take my hat off to all of you and I think it is going to be an amazing collaboration,” he said.

Sophiasburgh councillor Bill Roberts, County Food Hub board member Paula Teixeira Leite, Sophiasburgh students Alison and Bethany Foster.

An emotional Paula Teixeira Leite said, “This is for the community as a whole, but this is for the kids. I am a parent and this is a relief this is happening. Thank you for helping the parents and everyone.”

Leite introduced two Sophiasburgh Central School students who wanted to say something meaningful from their hearts.

Alison, a Grade 7 student, said, “I went to Sophiasburgh my whole life and I am so excited to graduate. My family is here to cheer on Sophiasbugh; my mum, some my cousins and uncles and my grandparents attended Sophiasburgh and they actually started on the very first day of opening in 1965,” she said. “Thank you so much to all donors and all the volunteers who helped get the County Food Hub started.”

Bethany Foster is in Grade 8 and has been attending Sophiasburgh Central School since her first day of junior kindergarten.

“When I heard that I may not be able to graduate here, it was to say the least upsetting. I wanted to graduate alongside my friends and people I had grew up with since I was four-years-old,” she said. “Thanks to so many people, not only will my class be able to graduate from this school, but many other classes after us will be able to do so as well. On behalf of my fellow students, thank you to all those involved in making this happen. We the students are happy to see the project under way.

“Thank you for reminding us what this is all about: a small school making an impact on rural life and a tremendous contribution to our community,” she added.

“We’ve got all kinds of fantastic things happening here in PEC, so this really is the model for how things should work in the province,” said Smith.

Farrell said a number of government organizations have seen the project’s potential as replicable.

“We are so excited for the journey to come and the impact we will have on the economic community development of Prince Edward County and the Bay of Quinte.”

Farrell also drew attention to a few other developing partnerships between the school board, Hastings and Prince Edward Public Health and the County Food Hub on student food literacy.

Chef Albert Ponzo and volunteers prepared squash soup and freshly-baked bread.

“We are hoping to have a pilot project focusing on enhanced learning for K-8 students in the region for the next school year, so we are working hard on that,” said Farrell. “Also the launch of our culinary advisory committee which is a who’s who of local and regional chefs, restaurants, catering businesses, agri-food ventures to advise on everything that we do operationally and also spread the good word. And there is strong investment and resource support interest for the business accelerator program.”

Farrell’s key message to the community is that while the County Food Hub plan is to be open for business in June of this year, it is open for business now. He is currently reaching out to local and regional agri-food start-ups and established players to bring them into the fold to use the shared commercial kitchen and to avail themselves of the resources provided by the food hub.

“Let’s not forget that all of this energy, all of this creativity and support was in service of saving a small, and I like to think, mighty rural school, for the social glue in this community, not just for Sophiasburgh, but for the entire County,” said Roberts.

Filed Under: Arts & CultureFeatured ArticlesHastings & Prince Edward District School BoardLocal News

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