Yellowbird Foodshed wants to connect Ohio consumers to food from the state's finest growers and makers.

For Benji Ballmer, the “tipping point” that led him to found Yellowbird Foodshed was the birth of his eldest child, a daughter named Dance, in 2005. “What am I going to feed this kid?” he says with a laugh, reflecting on those early years and the sea of parental responsibility ahead of him. After Dance’s birth, Ballmer dug deep, reading all he could about the state of food production in the U.S., including the nutritional, environmental and economic impacts of what he calls an “industrialized” and “commoditized” system that governs most American diets. Ballmer decided he wanted something different for his (now) four children, leading him to develop the Mount Vernon-based business he runs today.

Connecting Farmers with Consumers

Through a weekly food box program and online grocery store, Yellowbird Foodshed pairs fresh, seasonal and sustainably produced food from Ohio’s growers and makers with Central Ohio consumers. Launched in 2014 from Ballmer’s house, the 10-person company now operates out of a 10,000-square-foot facility in Mount Vernon to feed a subscriber base of 1,000 accounts and growing, according to Ballmer.

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Each week, Yellowbird picks up fruits, veggies and other goods from nearly 100 vendors around the state, assembles them in boxes and delivers the provisions to pickup points around Central and Northwest Ohio. During Ohio’s plentiful spring-to-autumn growing season, boxes in three sizes containing 5 to 14 varieties of produce are available by subscription ($20–$40). In colder months, winter boxes are on offer, often containing hearty root vegetables, greenhouse-grown tomatoes or greens, and pantry staples like pickled beets or dried beans.

In January each year, Ballmer says he and his team are busy connecting with producers to plan for the upcoming growing season. “What do we want? When? How much?” he remarks, rattling off the questions that must be sorted through to offer, say, 1,000 pounds of zucchini four times a season to subscribers. Ballmer calls this middleman work the “buzz” of the business for him, fueling his passion for the endeavor. 

“I always tell our growers, ‘I’m not here to take over your direct-to-consumer market,’” Ballmer says. “There are 2 million people that live inside Columbus’ metro area. If we can reach 1 percent of those people, we’re all going to win.”

Now five years in, Ballmer says Yellowbird wants to go beyond the produce box. “We want to become the online grocery hub for Ohio-grown, clean food,” he remarks, while pointing to local eggs, cheese and sauerkraut in a cooling unit at the company’s warehouse.

Local Food Fixing Local Economies

One “win,” Ballmer explains, is helping to incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables into people’s diets. Another is bolstering communities and local economies, where some of Ohio’s small-scale growers and makers have been able to stay afloat or even expand thanks to Yellowbird’s model.

Caitlin Bergman, co-owner of Johnstown’s Copia Farm, says that having Yellowbird as a sales outlet for her operation’s eggs has made a difference to her business’s bottom line. “We believe in what Yellowbird is doing,” she says, noting that the convenience offered by the company has brought her new clients. “They’re a great partner for both farms and our community to get behind to make positive change in our broken food system.”

That “broken food system” is epitomized by the acres and acres of corn, soy and wheat—heavily subsidized commodity crops at the heart of the American industrial food system—that Yellowbird’s trucks pass on their weekly trek across the state to gather farm-fresh fruits and vegetables.

“What if those fields—all of that space—was turned into real food?” Ballmer asks. “We could rebuild the soil, our economies and our relationships with food,” he says, eyes aglow with an almost childlike optimism.

It was having kids that changed his outlook, the entrepreneur says. During his own youth, he didn’t think much about how the food on his plate was grown, or its impact on communities. “I was asleep for 25 years.”