Connecting Our Local Food Infrastructure Through Food Hubs

Reader Contribution by Cooperative Development Institute
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The local food movement is growing all over the country as small farms, farmers markets, and CSAs flourish. It has strengthened the connections between farmers and consumers, as more people know where their food comes from and build direct relationships with producers.

Despite this growth, local food is still a small part of the food economy, and there are many barriers for local producers to reach larger markets such as institutions and grocery stores. Across the country, farmers and food organizers are developing food hubs to address this need and rebuild the regional food infrastructure that has been lost in the past 100 years.

At the end of March, more than 400 food hub organizers, organizations, funders and supporters met in Atlanta for the 3rd Annual National Food Hub Conference, hosted by the Wallace Center.

What is a Food Hub?

The USDA defines a food hub as “a centrally located facility with a business management structure facilitating the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution, and/or marketing of locally/regionally produced food products.”

While the term food hub is new, the concept of a food hub has existed for many years. Cooperatives have brought farmers together in shared ownership to aggregate, store, process, distribute, and market their products. In the mid-19th century, the Grange Movement was forming cooperatively owned food infrastructure to get farmers products to the growing urban centers.

In the 20th century, farmer cooperatives grew into many of these recognizable brands today such as Cabot Cheese, Blue Diamond Almonds, Ocean Spray, and Land of Lakes. In the 1960s, farmer cooperatives expanded in the South among African-African communities, who joined together to form the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.

Consumer and worker food co-ops in the 1960s and 70s, joined together to form cooperative warehouses that provided a space for aggregation and distribution of food for their stores, such as FedCo in Maine and San Francisco Cooperating Warehouse or Veritable Vegetable in California.

Developing New Markets

Food hubs are starting up all over the country as a way to reach new markets, share marketing, and build needed infrastructure. While this development is positive for the growth of local and regional food systems, it also poses challenges to maintain the values that developed in our local food movement.

The National Food Hub Conference examined the theme of “Maintaining Values while Building Value,” through plenary sessions and workshops. Food hubs are attempting to meet many needs: paying a fair price for farmers, offering fair price for consumers, expanding market access for producers and food access to low-income consumers. These different needs are not always complimentary and it is challenging for food hubs to balance these needs while developing a sustainable business.

Building Racial Equity into the Food System

At an afternoon plenary, African-American food hub organizers shared about their work to grow racial equity in the food system. Cornelius Blanding from The Federation of Southern Cooperatives talked about the importance of building cooperative ownership of the food system rooted in their communities.

Haile Johnston, founder of Common Market in Philadelphia, talked about their work to increase access to healthy local food in their community. Now they are helping form a new Common Market food hub in Atlanta that will work with refugee farmers and African American farmers to expand their market access.

Together these food hubs are learning, growing and building a food system that is rooted in local ownership and shared values.

The Cooperative Development Institutewas founded in 1994 with the explicit mission to foster an inter-dependent dense network of enterprises and institutions that allow us to meet our needs through principled democratic ownership, and that care for community, combat injustice and inequity, and promote conscious self-governance. Read all of CDI’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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