Gleaners plans incubator for new ideas in hunger relief

Gleaners Food Bank announced plans Thursday to create an “agri-hub solutions center” on Indianapolis’ west side where new ideas in hunger relief will be tested, refined and taught.

John Elliott, Gleaners’ president and CEO, said during Thursday’s IBJ Power Breakfast that the not-for-profit’s board is working with a firm that specializes in design thinking methodologies to create a campus master plan and vet ideas for an entrepreneurial incubator next to the nonprofit’s warehouse at 3737 Waldemere Ave.

The agri-hub’s proposed goal is to provide a space for Gleaners and its partners to come up with innovative methods for sourcing and distributing nutritious perishable products. Though he doesn’t have a definitive timeline and price in mind for the project, Elliott said his hope is to start construction on the agri-hub within the next two years.

“The ultimate goal through testing these ideas would be to increase the volume of nutritious products distributed to food insecure households, while lowering the costs and increasing nutritional quality and seasonal variety,” Elliott said.

Similar to a business start-up incubator, Gleaners’ proposed agri-hub would serve as a testing ground for innovative approaches to managing food supply chains, addressing market demands, creating sustainable pricing structures and improving distribution efficiencies.

Gleaners will need to purchase additional land and build a second building for its agri-hub. Elliott said he expects this overall campus master plan to double Gleaners’ current footprint by acquiring 8 to 10 acres immediately west of the main warehouse, but nothing is set in stone.

“We have not procured the adjacent land. That is our first preference, but we have some contingency planning in case that does not work out,” Elliott said.

Staying close by will be key, as Gleaners looks to capitalize on its existing west-side location surrounded by more than 2,000 other distribution centers and the Indianapolis International Airport.

The master planning process led by a Food Strategy Committee of senior staff, board members and a growing number of subject matter experts considers such on-site features as hydroponic and aquaponic commercial enterprises, pick-your-own garden beds and fruit trees, USDA-certified clean rooms for repacking dairy and protein, significant temperature-controlled storage space and a neighborhood café with pricing that fluctuates to accommodate customers’ ability to pay.

“These are not commitments to do, but commitments to evaluate,” Elliott said.

Programming also under consideration includes a redesigned process for diverting full and partial truckloads of perishable products from landfills, a unique workforce program to support food supply chain careers and a campus wellness education program that includes indoor and outdoor fitness equipment and trails for employees, volunteers and food insecure neighbors.

The facilities may also feature environmentally friendly zero waste policies as well as cost-neutral or revenue-generating alternative energy in the form of solar arrays, turbines and a compost digester.

“As ideas are tested and programs begin to take shape, the agri-hub would be committed to developing and sharing best practices and serving as a training center for other food banks, local partners and the Feeding America network,” Elliott said.

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