Understanding Food Hubs and Local Food Systems
Written by Sara Merz, AHA Executive Director
Last month, the National Good Food Network Food Hub Collaborative Conference was held in Raleigh, which was great timing for me to learn so much about the local food systems and the supply chain and distribution systems emerging across the country. The conference was “sold out” at 400 registrants over a month in advance–pretty telling about the interest in this topic in our region!
If you’re not familiar with the concept of a food hub, it is essentially a facility that manages the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution and/or marketing of locally/regionally produced food. While food hubs look different in different places, they provide a way for farms to grow their markets and increase access to local foods. In the Triangle, for example, Eastern Carolina Organics (ECO) serves as a hub in our area for organic produce.
I’m continuing to work on my follow-up list from the conference, but I thought I would share a few take-aways.
We learned some interesting things about institutional buying, including hospitals as leaders in buying local in other communities and Farm to School. It is new to me to learn just how strongly the USDA is working to promote fresh, local food access – in schools, with EBT/farmers’ market work, and through its Department of Defense contracting. The systems change work is complex, but it is happening. A workshop on Farm to School was especially interesting, showing how schools across the country are implementing changes so they can buy more local food, and showing how farmers can “plug in” to that growing market. It included School Food FOCUS (SFF), the National Farm to School Network, a vendor providing technology to aggregate orders for ease of ordering and billing, USDA staff, and a grower’s coop.
AHA is a partner with SFF, along with the Wake County Public School System), and I learned so much about possible next steps to advance fresh local food access in schools. There is both the need for decision-makers to say “we support more of this work,” and also for staff and outside support to address challenges around volume, changes in food preparation, revenue streams, and supply issues.
I also caught the tail-end of a discussion about a new $100 million “food insecurity nutrition incentive program,” funded by the Federal government and soon to be defined for 2014-2018. These federal funds will provide a 1-to-1 match for organizations who provide a match for fresh fruit and vegetable purchases by people who are low-income. The program details have not yet been written, but 1) there is no restriction on the match (i.e., it does NOT have to be non-federal) and 2) it is not limited to farmers’ markets – grocery stores and food hubs, for example, will be eligible. It may be linked to “local,” but that is yet to be defined. This is so exciting in terms of bringing more fresh produce to people who have the greatest health disparities and food insecurity, and will be an opportunity for local governments and nonprofits to expand their work.
Another highlight for me was hearing the systems-change work being done by some local leaders and organizations and leaders, including Nancy Creamer of Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS), Jen MacDougall of BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina Foundation, Scott Marlow of RAFI USA, Ben Fillipo of Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA), and others. All of these organizations have been working in North Carolina to promote health, ranging from looking at systems, supporting family farmers and small farms, addressing land use issues, as well as doing work around supply chain and distribution.
I especially appreciated Ben’s comments about the importance of institutional buyers, “because that’s where people eat;” Jen’s comments about leveraging hospitals as major buyers of food, and as major employers; and Scott’s discussion of economic power and defining “value chain” rather than supply chain and the challenge of keeping the word “local” authentic.
It was fascinating to hear about food hub work, different models including ownership of assets (trucks, warehouses) vs. not. The common theme was successes can look very different. AHA isn’t in the “food hub” business, however the information around how to shift and create the supply chain and distribution systems for food will be incredibly valuable as we move forward.