Just as farmers’ markets connect farmers directly with consumers, food hubs connect them with institutional customers.
Restaurants, small grocery stores and schools are the most common customers, but hospitals and universities have also found the hubs a resource for developing fresher, more healthful menus.
Hubs now number more than 200 in the U.S., according to a recently released survey by the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems and the Wallace Center at Winrock International, a nonprofit that promotes food hubs. The survey went to 222 food hubs identified by members of the National Good Food Network’s Food Hub Collaboration and 107 responded.
The survey revealed that 62 percent of them started less than five years ago, and most were in or near metropolitan areas. It also found that 31 percent had $1 million or more in annual revenue, and most are supporting their business with little or no grant assistance.
Also, 96 percent indicated that demand for their products and services was growing, reflecting the increased interest in local food across the nation.
The survey also revealed persistent challenges and barriers to growth that even the most financially successful food hubs faced.
For example, many said they need assistance in managing growth and identifying appropriate staffing levels. They also pointed to their need for capital and other resources to increase their trucking and warehousing capacity.
The food hub at 21 Acres in Woodinville, Wash., features farmers who use “beyond organic” standards. The Northwest Agriculture Business Center helped launch 21 Acres from a concept proposed by the Friends of Woodinville Farmers’ Market in 1999. The center continues to provide technical assistance, including the customized Local Orbit food hub management tool, marketing communications and the recruitment of buyers and sellers.
A food hub’s strength is its quick turn-around time, NABC marketing manager Lucy Norris said. Farms bring presold orders to 21 Acres’ cold-storage facility within a day or two of harvest, then a truck picks up a combined order from all the farms it’s buying from.
“We’re so excited about the potential for the 21 Acres Food Hub to help commercial and institutional food service operators procure fresh, seasonal local foods direct from farms in the Puget Sound region,” Norris said. “This effort will not only help local farms grow their profitability by reducing the time they spend traveling, but will also help reduce carbon emissions by limiting the number of trucks on the road.”
Food hubs can take several forms and provide a variety of services. The food hubs surveyed were for-profit, nonprofit, cooperative and publicly owned. More than 80 percent of those surveyed physically aggregate and distribute food, but many are also involved in product storage, wholesale and retail sales to consumers and marketing services for producers, including actively helping producers find new markets.
Most of the food hubs surveyed said all or most of their producers are small or mid-sized operations.