What's a food hub? How can they help me?

April 2011

Dear Farm Aid,

I sell mostly at farmers markets, but can only reach so many customers that way. Do you have any ideas for how I can get my produce to more people in the area in a way that doesn’t break the bank or take up too much time?

Thanks,
Farmer Dave
UT

With booming demand across America for good food from family farmers, it’s no surprise that you’re seeing increased interest in your farm products. But, as you say, farmers markets can only reach so many people. Despite the tremendous growth in the number of farmers markets nationwide—they’ve grown by 250% in the last 15 years!—direct markets account for just 0.4% of total U.S. agricultural sales. We’re still far away from transforming our food system so that everyone has access to the most healthful, freshest food possible while also supporting our nation’s family farmers.

That task will require robust wholesale markets that reach both eaters and farmers who can’t regularly frequent farmers markets. Yet many family farmers remain too small to provide the quantity of goods needed to access these wholesale markets, or lack the necessary equipment to refrigerate, store or deliver their product at that scale.

What’s a farmer to do? I have two words for you: food hubs.

Food hubs represent an exciting, emerging trend in local and regional food systems development. They tackle a critical need: the infrastructure and business management needed to handle the logistics of bringing food from the farm to the plate—things farmers often don’t have the time or resources to accomplish.

Many Shapes and Sizes

Food hubs are broadly defined as facilities that manage the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution or marketing of locally and regionally produced food. They fulfill from one to all of these functions and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. No matter their form, they are promising models for bringing family farm food to more Americans.

Most food hubs serve as a drop-off point for several farms in a region and a pick-up point for distribution streams and customers who want to buy food they can be sure came from local and regional family farmers. A great example is the Market Mobile program hosted by Farm Aid partner Farm Fresh Rhode Island. Market Mobile is a pooled farm-to-business delivery system that facilitates buying relationships between area farmers and business buyers and institutions. Market Mobile provides year-round delivery of a wide variety of farm fresh goods, including produce, local meat, seafood and dairy, from 40 local producers to chefs, schools and groceries in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

Foods hubs often provide a management team that coordinates supply chain logistics, including finding new markets for producers and coordinating distributors, processors and buyers. That has been exemplified by groups like Red Tomato in the Northeast and Ecotrust in the Pacific Northwest, both Farm Aid partners.

Some food hubs have permanent facilities that offer equipment for food to be stored, processed, packed and even sold under a shared label. Some also offer technical and business planning assistance for farmers. Appalachian Sustainable Development in Virginia, also a Farm Aid partner, has exemplified this model, helping dozens of former tobacco producers transition into organic production and selling their goods under one Appalachian Harvest label.

A key element to the food hub model is that they’re based on cooperation. As U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan recently described in a speech about food hubs, “Producers are helping producers. Processors are helping processors. Distributors are helping distributors.” And she is hopeful about the future of food hubs, stating that “Food hubs are not a flash in the pan. They are incredibly innovative business models specifically addressing some of our producers’ most overwhelming challenges.”

Reaping the benefits

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that there are nearly 100 food hubs operating in the country today—a number that’s growing as more communities see the benefits of direct markets like farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture programs, and want to bring family farm food to more people in their area.

USDA recently conducted a vast study of these models and found some exciting stuff:

  1. Food hubs are creating economic opportunity and adding jobs in their communities.
  2. Food hubs are providing new market opportunities for our family farmers, helping them access wholesale markets they normally wouldn’t be able to reach
  3. Over 40% of today’s food hubs focus on bringing fresh, local food products to “food deserts” like some rural communities and urban neighborhoods where healthy, affordable food is generally difficult to obtain.

What Farm Aid’s doing

Of course, these findings are not surprising to us here at Farm Aid.

Last year, we released our report, Rebuilding America’s Economy with Family Farm-Centered Food Systems, to broadcast the vast potential of models like food hubs in bringing prosperity to communities across America at a time when we’re all scratching our heads about the best way to move our economy forward. Local and regional food systems development, including the creation of food hubs, is an essential way to support our whole society—from the ground up!

If you have stories of models like food hubs and other initiatives in your region that are using farm-centered approaches to economic development and job creation, please send them our way so that we can tell their story! Leave a comment below and/or contact info@farmaid.org.

Here at Farm Aid, we’re proud that we have supported a number of food hub models across the country. Here are a few more you can check out for inspiration:

And check out our Farmer Hero story this month, highlighting Local Food Hub in Charlottesville, VA. Local Food Hub operates a local food warehouse that aggregates the produce of over 50 small family farms within 100 miles of Charlottesville, including Best of What’s Around Farm, founded by Farm Aid board member Dave Matthews!

Thanks for such a great question, Dave, and we hope to hear about food hubs in your neck of the woods soon!

Further Reading

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