We are seeing a booming demand across America for good food from family farmers but despite the tremendous growth in the number of farmers markets nationwide—they’ve grown by 250% from 1996 to 2011—direct markets accounted for just 0.4% of total U.S. agricultural sales in 2011. So, how can we transform our food system so that everyone has access to the most healthful, freshest food possible while also supporting family farmers?
That task will require robust wholesale markets that reach both consumers 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.
Food hubs represent an exciting, emerging trend in local and regional food systems development that address this very challenge. 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.
Food hubs come in various shapes and sizes and 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.
Foods hubs can provide a management team that coordinates supply chain logistics, including finding new markets for producers and coordinating distributors, processors and buyers. 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.
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.”
USDA recently conducted a vast study of these models and found some exciting stuff:
- Food hubs are creating economic opportunity and adding jobs in their communities.
- Food hubs are providing new market opportunities for our family farmers, helping them access wholesale markets they normally wouldn’t be able to reach.
- 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.
Would you buy your food from a Northern Arizona food hub? Do you believe local food is important? Do you feel having a direct connection between consumers and producers is important?