Fresh Food Hub in Auburn is making healthy lifestyles more accessible to rural residents

April 5th, 2019

By Lauren Caggiano | Input Fort Wayne

It’s said that the most effective businesses solve a problem.

For Denise Hoff, the issue she saw in Auburn was a gap in food access. Since the city is geographically isolated from larger cities and in a food desert, its residents don’t always have convenient access to healthy and fresh food grown locally.

“People didn’t have time to chase down healthy food,” she explains. Dense Hoff

In her efforts to span the gap, Hoff created Auburn’s Fresh Food Hub, a resource designed to provide local vendors with a storefront presence to sell high-quality food products and empower customers to make better choices at the same time.

She says it was her “unique career path” that ultimately led her to start the hub. She has a background in social work, helping adults struggling with mental illness. But after working in the field, she found herself suffering from burnout. At the same time, she didn’t want to give up the one-on-one element of her job.

So she started pursuing a career in health coaching and earned her personal trainer certification. This led her to ponder one question, in particular: “How can I marry my love for counseling with my passion for food?”

As she started working with female clients, she began to notice the gap in food access.

According to a 2015 report on Food Cost Disparities in Rural Communities, "poor nutrition is a chronic disease risk factor that is influenced by environmental disparities. Consistently eating a healthy diet is problematic in rural communities where the cost of frequent grocery store commutes to purchase highly perishable foods, such as fresh produce, can inhibit healthy eating.

Around the time she was noticing these issues playing out, she also became aware of an organization in Bryan, Ohio, that was pursuing a model for a fresh food hub. Like Auburn, Bryan is a rural area that struggles with similar access and affordability issues in its food system.

As Hoff spent time with the Bryan founder, they developed a friendship, and when storefront in Bryan closed, Hoff was confident she could replicate and build on its success in Auburn.

She opened the Fresh Food Hub in November 2015. They have been in their current location at 212 N. Main St. for the past two years.

“It’s a one-stop shop, so people don’t have to run to Fort Wayne for special items,” she says.

Products at the Hub run the gamut from local eggs to kombucha, and everything in between. Fort Wayne’s own Crossroads Kombucha started selling their before it hit Fort Wayne stores.

Hoff says the Hub is more than a retail operation. She currently works with 35 vendors to market their products. In doing so, she has enjoyed getting to know their stories.

“We have a network of great people behind us,” she says. 

On the consumer side, Auburn residents and visitors have access to fresh and healthy food in the form of grab-and-go items, a salad bar, snacks, supplements, and even nutritional advice. All produce at the Hub is organic and sourced from a network of local farmers within a 45-minute radius of Auburn, Hoff says.

She also hosts regular educational classes on site to fulfill the Hub's mission.

She believes the Hub makes it easier now than ever for Auburn-area residents to make healthier decisions in the name of enhanced quality of life, and she has seen behavior changes among her customers.

“People are starting to be more responsible for their own health,” she says.

For example, she encounters more and more people coming into the Hub to ask for recommendations about how to improve their diets. Along with health-conscious residents, Hoff has another market in people who have food sensitivities or conditions that require special diets.

Regardless of the situation, she is on a mission to make clean and healthy food available to the masses, one person at a time.

“I look at this as a community service,” she says. “You don’t get that everywhere.”