Report: Food hubs pioneering varied local distribution systems

RICHMOND—In the past decade dozens of local food hubs have sprung up around the country, and Virginia is home to several pioneering organizations.

The name describes what the organizations do: act as central hubs or distribution points for farmers selling local foods, particularly to large, institutional buyers. And because each local food marketing situation is unique, each food hub tends to be structured differently.

That’s one of the conclusions of a review of the local food hub movement from a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Service report.

“I think one thing that stands out is that Virginia is not by itself in doing this. We’re all out there trying to find a way to distribute local foods in a way that’s attractive to the end user,” said Chris Cook, assistant director of rural development for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation and a co-author of the study. “I think that’s why you see so many different ways that people have done it. Everyone has taken a different approach, hoping that it’s going to work for them.”

Some food hubs have large physical spaces they use to aggregate crops before shipping them out to buyers. Others rely on a delivery truck and a website through which buyers can order. Some have packing facilities, some are for-profit businesses, some are cooperatives and some are nonprofits. It all depends on the needs of the participating farmers and the vision of its founders, Cook said.

“Some groups have idealistic priorities, such as reducing their environmental footprint or keeping local agriculture profitable,” he explained. “Some are for-profit ventures, mostly as a way of keeping local food producers in business in the highly competitive world of produce sales. There are all manner of different ways we can do these things.”

Everyone’s looking for an edge to make their system work in their particular situation, Cook said. But that’s not to say that the journey isn’t worth it for many participants.

“The first thing you have to realize is it’s probably going to take you twice as long as you thought and cost three times as much as you thought,” he said. “But that’s actually true for most start-up businesses. It takes a lot of hard work by a lot of dedicated people.

“But obviously many people feel it’s worth it. That’s in part because they are creating new marketing opportunities for the next generation of farmers and meeting the demands of consumers who are keenly interested in buying local foods whenever possible.”

Contact Cook at 804-290-1111 or Norm Hyde, VFBF communications, at 804-290-1146.

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