Food Hubs

Food hubs offer an exciting bridge between food producers and consumers, providing a mutually beneficial relationship across both ends of the food system. As defined by the National Food Hub Collaboration, “a food hub is a business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers in order to satisfy wholesale, retail, and institutional demand.” Food hubs present an opportunity for communities to make healthy food sourcing a profitable enterprise for producers, distributors, and retailers, while simultaneously improving access to local foods.

Though similar to traditional food distributors or farmers’ markets, food hubs often work under three models to better connect local food producers to distributors and/or consumers:

  1. Farm-to-business/institution model
  2. Farm-to-consumer model
  3. Hybrid model

The differences between a farmers’ market and a food hub are nuanced: unlike farmers’ markets, where producers sell products directly to consumers, food hubs are geared toward providing producers with access to larger volume markets. For example, food hubs can provide a single drop-off and pick-up point for produce to be distributed to consumers, restaurants, or institutions such as universities, hospitals, and other large businesses. Food hubs can improve access to healthy foods in low-income or underserved areas by making it easier for farmers to offer their products in these areas. Food hubs can facilitate relationships with product purchasers in underserved neighborhoods and can provide services to producers such as insurance, quality control, and distribution and processing.
 

To learn more about the proliferation of food hubs in regions and states across the country, including what types of food retail projects constitute a food hub compared to a farmers’ market or traditional distribution center, take a look at the USDA's Regional Food Hub Resource Guide.

Key Challenges & Strategies

Challenges to Establishing Successful Food Hubs

While food hubs can have a wide range of positive and equitable impacts, starting and operating a food hub comes with obstacles, even if you are reconfiguring a current farmers’ market or wholesale distribution center into a food hub:
 

  • Start-up, administrative, and operational costs. Finding the capital to start and maintain a food hub can be challenging. Given the complex nature of food hubs, overhead costs can arise at all points on the operational chain, from the in-take of local produce to the sale of goods to distributors and/or consumers.
  • Site development. Similar to supermarkets, food hubs require strategic site development to ensure that they efficiently and equitably connect producers to distributors and/or consumers in a specified geographic area. Food hubs often necessitate cold storage and space for processing, distribution, and marketing, so choosing a site suitable for a food hub requires knowledge of the local food system.
  • Economic sustainability. Depending on the model, food hubs have to attract food producers, distributors, and/or consumers to be sustainable over time. Food hubs can take several years to achieve financial profitability.


Key Strategies for Successful Food Hubs  

  • Rely on proven and documented business strategies. Similar to other forms of healthy food retail, food hubs can benefit from comprehensive business plans. These enterprises can tap into targeted technical assistance programs that advise participants about how to increase their earning potential. Existing small business development training programs can also help food hubs improve their marketing strategies to increase their profitability.
  • Develop unique financing/funding packages for each specific food hub project. For more information on finding funding for your food hub project, see Funding.
  • Develop policies to support food hubs. In addition to city and statewide financing initiatives that support fresh food projects across the country, there are also non-funding policies supporting food hubs in underserved communities, see Policy Efforts.
  • Build support among local partners. Food hubs can work with various partners, including local farmers’ associations, schools districts, and established food distribution centers, to establish distribution agreements to increase their market footprint.  These partners can also help with advertising and marketing efforts.
  • Choose a space strategically. The location of a food hub matters for growers, buyers, and the communities it serves. Selecting a site for growing, processing, or distributing in a low-income neighborhood, or a community of color, will maximize the benefit for these residents.  In addition to improved food access, locating your hub in a low-income community will facilitate local hiring, workforce development, and, if done well, a commitment from the community to support the hub.
  • Find your spot in the market. Engage and remain engaged with residents of local communities, restaurants, and institutional buyers to find out which products are most desirable. Engaging the community will help you create a culturally relevant product line that attracts local customers, and creates a base of buyers who view themselves as partners in the food hub. The most profitable food hubs often reach a diverse customer base through a broad range of buyers, including small grocery stores, restaurants, and K-12 food services.

 

 

Advancing Equity

Grow Your Business with Equity

Food hubs have the potential to create a more equitable food system that values quality jobs, healthy food access, local economic growth, small business development, and sustainable agriculture. Food hubs designed with these equity considerations can provide opportunities for growers and producers, aggregators and distributors, and the consumer. Below are strategies for developing pofitable, equitable food hubs that foster more just, fair, and inclusive food systems and local economies.
 

  • Engage residents and community groups in the food hub planning process. Involve diverse community members in food hub planning from idea to implementation. Residents and stakeholders can provide crucial insight into issues such as location, hiring, and product mix. The following Community Engagement Resource Guides are helpful for thinking about how to engage your community: Community Engagement Resource Guide: What It IsCommunity Engagement Resource Guide: Why Use It, and Community Engagement Resource Guide: Checklist.
  • Connect to small and mid-sized farmers and producers. Locate farmers and growers in the region who have had difficulty accessing broader urban markets, especially low-income farmers, because these growers may be looking for new aggregation, marketing, and distribution opportunities to scale their production.
  • Prioritize local farmers of color. Identify and reach out to farmers and vendors of color to support historically marginalized producers and strengthen a diverse regional farm economy. Immigrant farmers and farmers of color may grow culturally appropriate foods that will meet consumer demand in their communities.
  • Choose a location that maximizes equity benefits. Select a site in a low-income neighborhood, or a community of color, to maximize benefits for these residents. In addition to improved food access, siting your hub in a low-income community will facilitate local hiring, workforce development, and, if done well, a commitment from the community to support the hub.
  • Employ members of the community. Local hiring can help un- or under-employed residents of underserved communities benefit from the economic development brought by the food hub. Food system jobs are often an opportunity to employ workers who have previously been excluded and overlooked.
  • Assess demand for different products. Engage residents of local communities, restaurants, and institutional buyers to find out which produce items and value-added products are most desirable. Understanding customers' product preferences and creating a culturally relevant product line ensures that food hub products will have a dedicated customer base.
  • Make the food hub a community asset. Make the food hub an inviting, appealing asset to the community. In addition to offering healthy food, the physical appearance of the food hub can help revitalize a neighborhood. If possible, engage your community by providing broader services such as educational opportunities and community programming.

 

Check out PolicyLink’s Food Hubs Tool in the Equitable Development Toolkit – It’s available online here.

Tools and Resources

Success Stories

Food hubs are gaining momentum across the country. Learn more about the following innovative food hub efforts.

  • Common Market, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: With a mission of providing nutritious, affordable, locally grown food to all, including the most vulnerable communities, Common Market in Philadelphia, PA connects farmers to more than 150 public and private schools, colleges and universities, hospitals, workplaces, grocery stores, nonprofits, and faith institutions throughout the Delaware Valley. Common Market’s commitment to equity has been key to its growth: in the past five years, Common Market has sold more than $5 million in local, fresh food, 25 percent of which has been sold to institutions specifically serving low-income communities and communities of color.
  • Intervale Food Hub, Burlington, Vermont: Based in Burlington, Vermont this food hub works with more than 20 farmers in the Burlington area to distribute their goods in the region. Intervale Food Hub runs a year-round multi-farm CSA that accepts SNAP benefits and uses 1 percent of all food hub sales to subsidize shares for low-income individuals and families.
  • Corbin Hill Food Project, New York City, New York: Based in New York City, New York the Corbin Hill Food Project gives residents of Harlem and the Bronx direct access to high-quality, fresh produce grown by local farmers from New York State. Corbin Hill partners with farms and community organizations to distribute boxes of freshly harvested produce, known as Farm Shares, once a week. By offering flexible membership terms, affordable prices, SNAP money matching, and items that reflect the community’s diverse cultural and culinary traditions, Corbin Hill Farm Shares meet the needs of the community’s low-income residents.
  • New North Florida Cooperative Association, Inc., Marianna, Florida: This producer-driven food hub aggregates, processes, and distributes fresh, chopped vegetables from primarily African American, small-scale growers. NNFC has a streamlined approach: it sells a limited line of produce to school districts and grocery stores within a day’s travel of their Marianna processing facility. This strategy enables NNFC to negotiate prices that sustain black farmers’ livelihoods and meet school districts’ needs. The coop serves more than 200,000 students in 30 school districts.
  • Farm Fresh Rhode Island, Pawtucket, Rhode Island: This nonprofit’s Market Mobile Program, started in 2009, supplies products from 50 local farms and producers to over 150 customers, including a multi-farm CSA, restaurants, grocers, caterers, schools, and hospitals in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Market Mobile has created 46 local jobs, and had an annual economic impact of over $1.75 million. Because Farm Fresh Rhode Island partners with a range of institutional, retail, and wholesale buyers, it can maintain profitability and financial growth while meeting the needs of the diverse communities it serves.
  • ALBA Organics, Watsonville, California: Based in Watsonville, CA: This licensed produce distributor supports the sales, marketing, and training needs of beginning farmers and sells locally grown, organic, farm-fresh produce at competitive prices. The ALBA Organics food hub offers customers the opportunity to support small-scale, limited-resource, and beginning farmers, many of whom are former farmworkers.