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Fitzpatrick Collaborative, Pepperell partnering to open food hub, commercial kitchen

The Fitzpatrick Collaborative and the old Peter Fitzpatrick School building could soon be home to Pepperell’s very own food hub and commercial kitchen. (Shane Rhodes/Nashoba Valley Voice)
The Fitzpatrick Collaborative and the old Peter Fitzpatrick School building could soon be home to Pepperell’s very own food hub and commercial kitchen. (Shane Rhodes/Nashoba Valley Voice)
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PEPPERELL — The Fitzpatrick Collaborative, in conjunction with the town of Pepperell and aid from MassDevelopment, is working to establish a food hub and commercial kitchen in town.

It would be the 11th such establishment in Massachusetts.

The nonprofit, which has turned the town’s former Peter Fitzpatrick School into a thriving community center dubbed “The Fitz,” received a $6,000 grant from MassDevelopment’s Collaborative Workspace Program, said Craig Hansen, co-founder and president of the Fitzpatrick Collaborative

Working with Pepperell’s Agricultural Commission, it used the funds to develop a business plan for the project and recently hired a consultant to gauge stakeholder interest among farmers in the area, according to Hansen.

“Our mission is to provide space for and benefit members of our community,” Hansen said. “Bringing farming communities together, bringing people together who have demand for fresh local foods… this would absolutely align with that.”

As demand for locally-sourced food has grown, many smaller farms are unable to truly contribute to their region’s demand. Food hubs, through a combination of production, distribution and marketing services, provide farmers not only the means to expand their operations, but to pool their resources and reach new markets, according to Hansen.

As of now, the Fitzpatrick Collaborative plans to rent out the building’s kitchen equipment and space to local farmers, he said.

“We plan to rent out space on a timed basis, whether it’s for storage and prep or for someone who wants to come in and maybe do some larger-scale baking and cooking and things like that,” Hansen said.

Paired with the commercial kitchen, which Hansen likened to an “indoor farmers’ market,” fresh produce would be made immediately available to consumers.

“This is part of a larger, regional food initiative that is going to transform how agriculture operates in New England,” said Sherrill Rosof, co-chair of the town’s Agricultural Commission. “I’m really pleased that we’re collaborating on this initiative.”

“It’s like we’ve opened up the door and are walking into a new world,” she said.

Hansen said they also plan to offer classes and workshops “to help the next generation of farmers.”

“Cooking classes, information on how to get into farming for the younger generation, the possibilities are pretty far and wide,” he said.

The idea of a commercial kitchen was in the Fitzpatrick Collaborative’s initial plans for the property when it took control of the building back in 2019. It wasn’t until later, after a visit from Shon Rainford, director of the Worcester Regional Food Hub, that the idea of Pepperell’s own potential food hub emerged.

“(The kitchen) is in surprisingly good condition,” Hansen said, “so we saw that opportunity to be able to leverage that to help sustain the rest of the operation of the property.”

With Rainford’s help, the Fitzpatrick Collaborative developed a business plan for the potential food hub and commercial kitchen. Then, in December, Holly Fowler, co-founder and CEO of Northbound Ventures Consulting LLC, was brought in to study the feasibility of such a venture in Pepperell.

So far, according to Town Planner Jenny Gingras, reception has been positive.

“Feedback we’ve had has definitely been positive,” she said. Gingras also said the lone public meeting the town has hosted concerning the project was met with “great attendance.” Rosof said she has a list of “around 200 farms” in a 25-mile radius that they plan to reach out to.

Rosof also said the food hub would heavily benefit the local community as well as the nonprofit itself.

“It will also be enormously of benefit to you and I and everybody else who likes good, nutritional food,” she said. “(The Fitzpatrick Collaborative) will see a real benefit, too, not just as a food service location for the town, but in bringing people to the Fitz and enjoying all of its other programs.”

Pepperell’s Planning Board has also developed a zoning article that would allow the project at The Fitz. It will be voted on at town meeting later this spring.

For more information, visit the Pepperell Planning Department’s “Planning and Economic Development News” page at https://bit.ly/3KURnm4.

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