In the certain, convincing tone of a preacher, Benji Ballmer explains Yellowbird Foodshed to me. “Why buy a tomato that was picked 1,500 miles away four weeks ago as a rock hard, green baseball?” he asks, tracing the long life of a conventional crop from farm to table.
“I have my growers pick a tomato for you on Monday. We pack it on Tuesday, and have it to you on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. You’re going to get the most flavorful and nutritious option available at the right time of the year.”
Benji’s business, which started in 2013 and is headquartered in Mount Vernon, not only promises to put healthy food on my family’s table but to grow local economies, lessen our dependence on fossil fuels, and support sustainable agricultural systems resulting in cleaner soils, air and waterways.
Offering a year-round food box program organized by season, Yellowbird Foodshed reaches nearly 1,000 households in Central Ohio through a distribution model that prioritizes farmers and artisans who are located within 150 miles of Columbus and who practice sustainability in their production efforts.
In their model, Yellowbird Foodshed is both the aggregator and the distributor. They spend the first part of the week traveling to all four corners of the state to get their hands on the freshest, most delicious food possible from nearly 60 farmers and artisans. They take the food back to Mount Vernon, box it up in their retrofitted warehouse, and then distribute the goods directly to consumers at several dozen public and private pick-up locations, most of which are in the Columbus area. For a bit extra, boxes can be delivered directly to a purchaser’s door.
The boxes are filled with Ohio fruits and vegetables and sometimes a surprise pantry item, like maple syrup, salsa or tortilla chips. Two sizes are available: a base box, which provides 8 to 10 varieties, and a full size, offering 12 to 14 options. Add-ons like poultry, pork, beef, cheese, milk and eggs can be ordered online and delivered through the program. The value is there, too: getting farm-fresh eggs delivered along with it for $5 ain’t bad at all.
Shifting the Marketplace
Yellowbird Foodshed markets to the health-conscious consumer motivated by clean eating. However, as Benji hoped at the outset, over the last five years he has seen the trickle-down impact that his reimagined food distribution model is having on economies in our region. In 2017, the company funneled more than half a million dollars into local economies through their food distribution model.
“I have the belief that if we do this right we can create a resilient local economy that will put more growers back in business,” he says. “Your dollar is not only being spent on the most nutritious and flavorful item available but that dollar is also cascading out—it’s a vote that you’re making every day.”
Though they sometimes refer to their boxes as a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture program, the company wrestles with this title. In the CSA model a farmer grows for, and distributes directly to, the consumer. In their model, Yellowbird Foodshed plays the middle man enabling the grower to focus on what they do best.
“Highly impactful and beneficial company,” Joseph Swain, owner of Swainway Urban Farm located in Clintonville, says when asked his thoughts about the enterprise. “Yellowbird has been an important sales outlet for my farm and many others, connecting the dot between local growers and consumers. Their mission exemplifies the work needed to sustain the local food movement here in Ohio.”
Yellowbird Foodshed prioritizes eating seasonally.
“You’re going to get asparagus when asparagus is ready in Ohio,” Benji says. “Some people would say ‘Well, I want asparagus all year.’ I would say, ‘That’s what makes asparagus so special.’”
This year, the company is also rolling out a “market style” option in several of their pick-up locations where consumers can do a bit of customization in their weekly box.
Engaging the Consumer
Not sure what to do with bok choy? Don’t worry, Benji’s got a solution. Each week, through Yellowbird Foodshed’s newsletter and app, participants can access information on what’s in their box, suggestions on how to prepare that item with recipe ideas, as well as tips on how to store the produce.
“We hold their hands through the process,” Benji says. “Our users may try something they haven’t tasted before.”
“I have been especially impressed with their customer service and attention to detail,” said Katy Hite, a Clintonville resident who has subscribed to the food box program for nearly a year. “The produce always arrives fresh and I love getting emails with suggestions for how to prepare and store the food.”