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Just outside of their new facility in Bed-Stuy, in late 2021, the members of Brooklyn Packers, a Black- and worker-owned cooperative, end their week with a farm stand. As the afternoon winds down, Karna Ray, a musician and organizer and one of the five worker-owners, buzzes around with an orchestrated precision, putting the boxes of purple radishes, little gem lettuce, and shallots away in a walk-in fridge. The vegetables are left over from their weekly orders, as a food distribution cooperative that functions increasingly like a hyperlocal food hub.
“We’ve never had a space before,” said Ray. “Feeling landed somewhere is a huge relief.”
“[This food hub is] a small-scale example of the bigger thing that we want to grow.”
They were three months into leasing the storefront—which is just big enough for a long table for packing boxes and rows of industrial shelves stacked with honey, maple syrup, and root vegetables still smelling of sweet dirt. The space is mainly a packing and distribution center, but on Thursdays, between 4 and 6 p.m., people can swing by the farm stand, or pick up groceries from their community supported agriculture (CSA), known as Brooklyn Supported Agriculture (BSA), sourced from nearby, small-scale farms.
The Packers’ newly leased space is key to their larger vision—already well underway—of building a local production and distribution network of farms, retailers, nonprofits, and other businesses, largely owned by Black folks and other people of color. The honey, for instance, is sourced from Zach & Zoë, a Black-owned apiary in New Jersey, while the maple syrup comes from Triple J Farm, run by a Black family in New York’s Hudson Valley. The idea is that by networking together in a coordinated system, they will shorten the supply chain and drive down the cost of high-quality local food in Brooklyn.
As Ray put it, they hope to “make these things that are usually a rarefied commodity—like actual vegetables from real people—accessible to everybody.”
Since its founding in 2016, the Packers have been working out of temporary spaces—an old lighting factory, a church, a community center, the dining room of the nearby Haitian restaurant Grandchamps, and the Pfizer Building—to name a few.
They refer to the rental space as “the hub” because it functions as the central spoke in this interconnected system, built on the community relationships they’ve cultivated. “It’s a micro hub, basically. We receive and distribute food from there. We store food there. We have a little market outside sometimes. We interact with the community,” said Steph Wiley, a founding owner of the cooperative and entrepreneur. “It’s a small-scale example of the bigger thing that we want to grow.”
The bulk of the group’s work involves sourcing, packing, and distributing food for mainly Black and Latinx-owned businesses. Their most forward-facing work is BSA, available for pick-up, delivery in Queens and Brooklyn, and with their local partners, such as the community organizing hub Mayday Space and the Black-owned food market Buy Better Foods. They also work in a more behind-the-scenes role, packing and distributing for mutual aid groups such as Bed-Stuy Strong and East Brooklyn Mutual Aid, and nonprofits including Ancient Song Doula Services.
“They are community focused and it’s run by BIPOC individuals,” said Chanel Porchia-Albert, founder and CEO of Ancient Song. “That was really important to me as a woman of color organization whose primary constituents are Black, brown, and Indigenous folks.” Since the height of the pandemic, Ancient Song has partnered with the Packers to host a monthly giveaway of groceries and other essentials. As food prices have spiked, she says this is especially important.
This way of operating is on par with the definition of a food hub. “Food hubs are pretty unique from place to place. But what I usually tell people is that they are a business that aggregates, distributes, sells, and markets local and regional food products,” said Jillian Dy, former deputy director of the Common Market MidAtlantic. That said, Dy notes, “If you’ve seen one food hub, you’ve seen one food hub.”
Mission-driven food hubs prioritize a commitment to values, whether it’s local food procurement, or supporting Black-owned producers and businesses. Unlike other food-distribution models, these operations tend to place sustainability, community impact, and social justice at the center of their work—across the entire production and distribution chain.
For members of the Brooklyn Packers, the fact that they’re building a micro food hub as a worker-owned cooperative is key. It harkens back to the Black-led work toward self-determination and collective care seen in previous generations, and it allows for a model that rejects some of the most problematic elements of food retail. Their success comes from building relationships, within the cooperative and the broader community—the backbone of their hyperlocal food hub.
The challenge with any work related to the food system is the low profit margin paired with physically challenging work. With the worker-owned model, the Brooklyn Packers all have an equal stake in the process and the profits, and they make major decisions through voting and a discussion process. “I think that’s where our expertise actually lies—in how we organize ourselves and how we make decisions as a labor cooperative,” said Ray.
From Responding to the Emergency to ‘Building Something Real’
The members of Brooklyn Packers are the first to admit that this vision for a cooperative, community-based food hub is still a work in progress. They’ve lately been grappling with fundamental questions, such as how to build a funding mechanism that doesn’t compromise their principles and values labor across the entire supply chain.
“We’re still growing and making necessary changes,” said Scott Wiley, Steph’s brother and another worker-owner. “How do we sustain what we want to do?”
During the height of the pandemic, the Packers’ mission was simple: responding to the immediate need, the growing pantry lines of the 1.5 million New Yorkers couldn’t afford food by October 2020. It became evident that the city itself didn’t have the existing local infrastructure or community networks to respond to the food crisis effectively, so it relied heavily on local groups, like the Brooklyn Packers, to fill in the gaps.
The Packers rapidly scaled up their operation, hiring employees for the first time, under a contract with the Corbin Hill Food Project to deliver emergency food boxes under the city-funded program, COVID-19 Emergency Food Distribution (GetFoodNYC), which ran from the spring of 2020 to the fall of 2021. “At its peak, in April of 2020, the program provided 1 million home-delivered meals a day to New Yorkers,” said a representative from the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy in an email.
They put their longer-term vision on hold to respond to the crisis. And they quickly learned how to do mass distributions of food. They moved into a lighting warehouse during this period. Shawn Santana, one of the group’s co-founders, who had never worked as a trucker prior, learned how to drive a refrigerated truck that contained 12 pallets of food, navigating the often-crowded Brooklyn streets.
“We were all essentially working on quicksand all the time. In and out,” said Ray. They typically worked six days a week, while continuing to run the BSA alongside the emergency distribution. “I would go home after working around the clock and go sit in the bathtub at like 6 p.m. and just fall asleep.”
The Packers’ strengths as a food distribution cooperative, embedded in local communities and equipped to quickly move food about the city, made the group uniquely poised to help. This included helping scale up the operations of volunteer-based mutual aid groups, which often began by making individual grocery runs.