The food hub movement

In an article called "Five Food Predictions for 2012," author Andrew Stout writes: "Networked food hubs are our future." Which might cause you to ask: What's a food hub?

The USDA website says that definitions for the term "vary from narrow market efficiency functions to those related to visions of building a diversified food culture." The working definition on which USDA settles is this: "A centrally located facility with a business management structure facilitating the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution, and/or marketing of locally/regionally produced food products."

So, a food hub is something like a farmers" market, but it's a little bit more than that. For one thing, it's ongoing. Its physical and organizational infrastructure allows multiple farmers to store, and sometimes process, their products there and then market them to local consumers or distributors. The essential components of the food hub business model, according to the USDA, are: aggregation/distribution-wholesale, active coordination and permanent facilities.

The USDA is a fan of the food hub movement and its ability to build a stronger regional food system. It lists the potential benefits: Producers can get expanded market opportunities, rural areas can get jobs and consumers can get access to fresh food.

Currently, more than 100 food hubs are operating in the United States. One of them, La Montanita in New Mexico, buys products from more than 700 local producers. In 2006, the hub invested $150,000 in trucks and a renovated warehouse, allowing them to store and process more than 1,000 local products. Those products are then sold at four La Montanita retail co-op locations, as well as other retail outlets, across the state.

Another example of a food hub is Simply Wisconsin, which aggregates the products of more than 30 farms, then distributes those products in boxes of seasonal produce that customers can pick up each week, with options for value-added products such as cheese. It's based on a CSA model, where consumers pay in advance for a share of the season's produce, so they share in some of the farmers" risk.

Another example is the Nebraska Food Cooperative, which calls itself an "online, year-round farmers" market and local food distribution service." The cooperative uses a web-based ordering system and each month delivers to consumers the items they've ordered. Products available include beef, chicken and pork, identified by farm, with each farm offering its own selection of cuts (and associated products such as jerky, sausage and tallow) at its own prices.

The USDA blog explains further what food hubs can offer and why they're important: "As we talk to farmers, producers, consumers, processors, retailers, buyers and everyone else involved in regional food system development, we hear more and more about small and mid-sized farmers struggling to get their products to market quickly and efficiently. And more and more we hear that these same producers need access to things like trucks, warehouses, processing space and storage. These things require capital investment, infrastructure maintenance and dedicated oversight things that small and mid-sized producers often can't afford or manage themselves."

Food hubs are gaining traction, as they try to fill those gaps and bring producers and consumers together.