As a market farmer, you know the importance of having access to convenient outlets for your products. Food Hubs are becoming increasingly popular as an effective way to get local foods to customers, providing an invaluable resource for small-scale and mid-sized farmers. They can help expand sales opportunities while also addressing issues like food distribution, storage, and packaging for local food providers.
In this blog post, we’ll discuss how Food Hubs can be beneficial for market farmers who are looking to get their locally grown products into the marketplace quickly and cost effectively.
What is a Food Hub?
You may not have heard of food hubs because they’re a seemingly invisible part of our food system yet vital to the local food scene. You may have consumed or purchased food distributed by a food hub without knowing it. They are physical or online portals where local producers of meat, produce, dairy, and other foods can sell their products to one hub, the hub, in turn, markets and sells those products. Food hubs are the connecting bridge from producer to consumer.
Many food co-ops, conservation districts, and other local, state, and federal entities have secured funds to be distributed through grants to local growers and producers to install infrastructure. These funds will enable them to produce more and, in turn, have more to offer to their community. However, given the opportunity to grow more, they may not have the time to connect with purchasers interested in their products. Enter food hubs.
Food hubs are centrally managed locations that facilitate local food storage, marketing, and distribution. They play the middle man, saving farmers and ranchers the trouble of connecting to restaurants, schools, hospitals, and other outlets. In turn, those outlets support local producers, satisfying the increasing demand for locally produced food. Sometimes, they even step in to help run markets, taking that burden off farmers. Everybody wins! Click here to see if there’s one near you.
What is the Role of Food Hubs in Local Food Marketing
Food hubs help cultivate trust in local growers by consumers, increase demand for local food, and educate communities about the importance of spending their dollars locally. They also create jobs for individuals who want to be a part of their local food system but are not necessarily interested in farming or ranching. Employing and training community members is just one more way to connect people back to where their food comes from.
Our society has become very disconnected from what goes into growing food and raising animals for consumption. Culturally, we have gotten used to being able to find just about anything we need for dinner at the local big-box grocery store. Convenience has overtaken seasonal eating.
What if we could only find and eat what’s seasonal because that was all that was available at any given time at the local corner grocer because that’s what’s growing? What if we all understood why cucumbers and squash weren’t available after a month-long flooding event in our neck of the woods? The way food hubs market and educate on certain products they’re supplying and where they came from is a way to connect consumers to their food and understand the work that goes into it.
How Food Hubs Help Local Foods Get to Market
It’s no secret to people within the local food sector that local, seasonal food is the freshest, most nutrient-dense, and best bang for your buck that consumers can get their hands on. But do the consumers know that? Now that food hubs exist, it’s our job to raise awareness of their benefits to increase the demand for local food.
Food hubs can pick up food from farms and sell it to food brokers, restaurants, schools, small grocers, and individuals. Farmers indicate what and how much they have to sell. Someone from the hub retrieves the goods from the farmer and takes it from there. This saves farmers the added work of texting, emailing, calling, packing, and driving all around the region to sell their products. Best of all, products are oftentimes moved in larger quantities than at a market or wholesale.
Communicate the benefits of food hubs to potential users
Food hubs are the bridge between producers and consumers. People are increasingly curious about where their food comes from, how it was raised, what was sprayed, when it was harvested, etc. Forming trusting relationships with individuals within the local food system strengthens consumers’ understanding of what “local” and “organic” means in the world of ever-changing and unclear messaging of food labels. Although the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic has leveled off, studies show that consumers remain less concerned with the prices of locally produced items and more about the environmental effects, quality, and accessibility.
Food hubs often pop up in more rural areas and serve as a central community gathering space for people all over the area. It’s not just about food, but rather a network of like-minded and passionate people, students and teachers, young families, transitioning farmers, and chefs. Imagine being part of something so special and integral in your community.
Demonstrating how food hubs can address local food needs
Even though roughly 50 million Americans are experiencing food insecurity, they may feel stigmatized or embarrassed to take advantage of their SNAP benefits at farmers’ markets. Usually funded by local and state government entities or local donors, many states even offer bonus incentives, often doubling up the value to be spent on fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets.
In January 2023, The Hub on the Hill, a food hub based in New York became the country's first of its kind to accept SNAP EBT payments online, making fresh, local food, accessible to families and individuals experiencing food insecurity. Hopefully, this trend continues as others across the nation see the possibilities.
The Benefits of Food Hubs for Local Food Producers
1. Increased Access to Markets
Much of the farming industry has shifted from mono-crop and large farms to diversified, small-scale farms run by an average of one to three individuals. There has been a shortage in farm labor for quite some time so the less time farmers have to spend trying to sell their product to new markets, the better.
Having food hubs as an outlet to sell products, sometimes in large quantities, increases farmers’ access to new, different markets they may have never had before, raising awareness of local food in the area.
2. Reduced Costs of Sales
When considering the time it takes to bag up (by pound) and bundle farm products individually for a farmers’ market or farm stand along with bags, rubber bands, stickers, etc., time may be better off spent bagging them up in bulk (by unit) for one pick-up or delivery to a local food hub. After calculating the costs of farmers’ market fees and time spent away from the farm, they may make more selling to local food hubs while also increasing access for those in need of local food.
Another thing to consider is that often, liability insurance requirements can be a huge hindrance when small farms are just getting started. Food hubs usually take responsibility for liability insurance since they are transporting products. This is also the case for proper processing, storage, and marketing which can be huge overhead costs for small-scale farmers, especially when starting up.
3. Increased Revenue Potential
Food hubs provide a streamlined outlet for farmers and ranchers to sell products that may not be marketable at other outlets. Examples would be:
A crop that ripens in between farmers’ markets that won’t keep
An amount of a crop that’s not quite enough to sell wholesale on its own and too much for a farmers’ market
A crop your current markets aren’t interested in
Being connected to a food hub provides an additional outlet for crops farmers couldn’t typically sell on their own.
4. Streamlined Processes
When farmers are connected to a food hub, scheduling a daily, weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly delivery system will be part of their everyday schedule. This makes it easy to streamline sales, delivery, and bookkeeping processes, freeing up more time to farm.
5. Increased Sustainability
Farming is difficult enough without the added challenge of figuring out what customers are going to be interested in purchasing each season. Food hubs have a larger outreach platform to reach more people and organizations interested in buying food. This takes some of the outreach work off the farmers’ plates so they can focus on what they do best which is growing.
6. Increased Community Engagement
Food hubs are typically centered around not just local food, but also community togetherness, healthy activities, and celebrating culture. They bring people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, cultures, and genders together for the good of the community, which makes food hubs about so much more than food!
7. Increased Access to Resources and Services
Collaborating with food hubs can expose farmers to programs like SNAP and local gleaners they may not have otherwise known about. This exposure may encourage them to facilitate starting a similar program at their own farmers’ market. There are also countless local, state, and federally funded grants that food hubs help market to local area farmers.
On the same token, chefs and local grocers may shift their beliefs of what’s possible when it comes to local food. Food hubs can fill orders with a combination of local products, meeting the demands and supporting small and mid-sized farms, all while saving time and conserving energy. Food hubs widen the scope of what’s available to farmers.
8. Increased Food Safety
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, foodborne diseases cause about 48,000 people in the US to get sick per year.
The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was enacted in 2011 to strengthen our food systems. Detecting and preventing outbreaks is crucial to protecting public safety. In 2021, a group of educators took a close look at the function and role of food hubs and created a list of possible SOPs to be used as guidance and in training when starting or reforming a food hub. They focus on transporting, proper storage temperatures, facility cleanliness, and product packing.
9. Increased Ability to Adapt to Change
Many local producers lost much of their distribution channels overnight when the COVID-19 pandemic shut restaurants, grocery stores, and farmers’ markets down or limited access to them. Food hubs played a huge role in local food distribution and elevating the local food movement during this time, and the momentum has had a lasting effect.
10. Increased Social and Economic Impact
A new generation of farmers and ranchers is about to take the reigns, and they are bringing with them a new energy. Food hubs, with their innovative models and creative programs, are harnessing this energy to create a sustainable and thriving local food economy, all the while, lowering energy usage and decreasing waste that typically comes with food distribution.
Case Studies of Successful Food Hubs
La Montanita Co-op
This co-op style distribution center helps over 1100 small and medium-scale New Mexico growers and food producers distribute their products.
Volunteers receive a one-time 15% off their shopping trip.
Members receive a patronage dividend refund at the end of each fiscal year.
Special discounts for members.
Ability to order items not carried in stores, and discounts on large bulk orders.
Owner discount days.
Paid members/owners can attend meetings and vote on important decisions in your community.
Here your voice matters!
La Montanita Co-op offers affordable annual and lifetime memberships.
Since 1988, the Intervale Center has been pioneering the local food movement and focusing on three main pillars: farms, land, and people. In doing so, local food producers and families are thriving, the land is protected, and communities are strong.
The folks who run the Intervale Center participate in regular gleaning programs so that no food goes to waste and no children of Vermont go hungry. They also pride themselves in honoring the deep-rooted and sacred Abenaki history and their relationship with the land, devoting a heritage garden to growing heirloom varieties to keep this rich history alive.
REAP Food Hub
In 2002, the REAP Food Hub launched an online resource guide called Farm Fresh Atlas including restaurants, farmers’ markets, farm stores, and businesses that purchase from and sell local food. Since then, they’ve launched Farm to Business and Farm to School.
Farm to Business was inspired by the success of Farm Fresh Atlas and created a pilot Wholesale Ready Marketplace and Resource Training Guide that helps support high-volume growers by helping them connect and partner with wholesale buyers, doing everything virtually for convenience. Farm to School helps to bring fresh, local food into schools to support local children, increase healthy eating education, and advocate for universal healthy, free meals for students.
Their identity revolves around honesty, transparency, and high standards so people in southern Wisconsin can trust the name when they see it. They are walking the walk by using their platform to elevate local chefs, schools, businesses, and families while ensuring members of their community have proper access to healthy food.
Much of the land of Appalachia was previously used to grow tobacco, but after the federal deregulation of tobacco production, farmers needed to shift, and fast, if they wanted to remain on their land while continuing to make a living and supporting their families. In 2000, Appalachian Harvest was born of Appalachian Sustainable Development and helped farms transition their farms into more diversified agricultural production.
Provides food safety training and certification courses
Serves as a year-round resource for farmers needing on-farm visits, technical support, and access to packaging
Offers support to veterans in agriculture
Founded a training program called Groundwork which trains individuals who have employment barriers such as substance use disorder, low income, former incarceration, or limited education
Works hard to combat climate change
To date, the Appalachian Harvest has assisted farmers in selling over $27 million to wholesale accounts and facilitated the donation of 4.5 million pounds of food.
FEED Cooperative Sonoma
F.E.E.D. stands for Farmers Exchange of Earthly Delights and while serving over 50 local North Bay area farms, boy, does this ring true. They offer a weekly FEED box subscription that can be picked up locally, or delivered right to your door. Each box features produce from many different farms and offers a donation option for weeks you will be unavailable for pickup.
This CSA model takes the pressure off farms to grow a lot of different crops and instead, allows them to focus on their specialty crops. In addition to the FEED box, they work with local restaurants and local grocers in the area. They began their programming in 2011, and in 2020, FEED became the first food hub in California to be a 100% employee and farmer-owned cooperative, hopefully seen nationwide as a ground-breaking concept with more to follow.
Food Hubs are an invaluable resource for market farmers, offering a myriad of benefits that range from expanded sales opportunities to easier storage and packaging requirements. With more customers opting into local foods every day, having Food Hubs available will be key in the ability to meet the ever-increasing demand. Not sure if there is one in your area? Head to the USDA Local Food Directories to find one near you!