Food Hubs Bring Local Food In Reach

Co-ops Stress Economic and Environmental Benefits

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Posted: Tuesday, December 31, 2013 12:54 pm | Updated: 1:53 pm, Tue Dec 31, 2013.

Demand for local food is growing. Yet city dwellers often find it easier to buy a cabbage that has traveled 500 miles than one that was grown in the next county over. And farmers might find it easier to grow corn for a national market than table vegetables and fruits for a local one.

Who benefits when food is eaten closer to where it's grown? "Everyone!" said Jason Grimm, food system planner with Iowa Valley Resource Conservation & Development and a member of the Iowa Valley Food Co-op. "It's better for the environment. Better for the community. There are economic impacts on businesses and farmers. It's even better for schools, because local tax dollars can go back into the local economy."

The food hub was born to bridge the gap between growers in rural areas and the stores, restaurants, schools, and hospitals in cities.

The National Good Food Network defines a food hub as "a business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail, and institutional demand."

In other words, conventional agriculture serves customers by working at a large scale; a food hub serves customers by helping a large number of producers work together.

How, exactly, do they do that? The two basic tasks of a food hub are to help combine food from multiple producers and to help distribute it to individual buyers, retail outlets, and institutions. But the services take many forms. Some food hubs connect farmers with resources for processing and storing produce (from simple storage space to freezers and greenhouses); others help with licensing, insurance, and inspections. Some provide volunteer crews to help with planting and other tasks. Others offer financing.

Nick McCann, food system value chain coordinator with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, has seen the progress that can be gained when a food hub offers something as simple as a refrigerated truck, providing custom hauling so that farmers can focus on growing rather than transportation.

McCann has also overseen a pilot study placing locally produced yogurt in rural grocery stores. "We've been studying the effect of increased frequency of delivery to grocery stores, and there is substantial improvement" when food is delivered more frequently, both in the quantities sold and in the margins that producers can get.

Local food has the reputation for costing more. "We've found that it's not always price, though that's a perceived barrier for some consumers," Grimm said. "The larger issue is access."

Another innovation from McCann's office is workplace CSAs. In a traditional Community Supported Agriculture system, buyers go to a central location each week to pick up a box of the items in season that week on the participating farms. This attracts highly motivated buyers, but for the rest of the market, having a box delivered to their place of work may be the factor that makes a CSA convenient enough to be worth considering.

"But 90 percent of us get our produce from the grocery store," Grimm said. Some local or regional grocery chains are stocking more local produce in response to customer demand, but warehouse stores continue to prefer the larger-scale possibilities of conventional agriculture.

"For local vegetables to happen more often, we need farmers growing more quantity, cooperating together," Grimm said.

It isn't just the demand side that faces challenges; helping producers cooperate isn't always easy, either. "All your growers have to have a common understanding of what size a box should be, so you're not having to re-pack," Grimm said. "And farmers have to learn ways of grading and packing" that work for combining with other producers.

To non-farmers, some of the barriers to the growing of produce are unexpected. Crop insurance programs might not be available; farmers might then choose to diversify their crops in order to reduce their risk, but this means a smaller harvest of any particular fruit or vegetable, making it more difficult to satisfy larger buyers such as restaurants, schools, or hospitals.

Sometimes the law is a barrier, too. "The law is set up for conventional agriculture," Grimm said. For example, some counties ban on-farm processing of poultry. Others, whose laws are written for single-planting, single-harvest crops such as corn, might consider the more frequent harvesting, packing, and shipping cycles associated with produce to be commercial activity and ban them under zoning regulations.

All these point to things that municipal leaders can do to support local food:

* Form groups of citizens and officials to discuss issues and recommend changes. In some counties, such councils can be government-appointed, but simply having officials present and knowing they're listening might be enough.

* Help fund the research stage of food hub formation. Good feasibility studies beforehand can help food hubs choose the appropriate level of staffing, locate producers and consumers, and learn from successful food hubs in other parts of the country. McCann offers consulting services, and producers come to him to learn sales strategies, the effects of more frequent deliveries, and other information that can help them succeed.

* Help with space -- for aggregating and storing, of course, but also for processing crops into value-added, multi-season items such as jellies and pickles that can expand the market for local produce. "Rural Iowa has a lot of vacant buildings," McCann said, and many cities also have valuable real estate standing empty due to changes in patterns of population and industry.

* Generate community support. "A lot of people don't know what's out there right in their own backyard," McCann said, "and they'd be surprised at the quality of local food during the growing season. And it's beneficial for people to have relationships with the people who grow their food and what goes into making it."

"I think of food as a necessary service that cities should be working on," Grimm said, "not just for low-income people, but for everyone."

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