Food hubs

Food hubs are businesses or other organizations that aggregate, distribute, and market local and regional food products, usually fresh fruits and vegetables, but also sometimes meat, dairy, grains, prepared foods, or other items. There are many different types of food hubs including retail-driven, non-profit-driven, producer-driven, and consumer-driven models (USDA-Diamond 2012, Horst 2011*). Food hubs often provide participating farmers with access to marketing and sales services, value-added processing, advertising, delivery trucks, and liability insurance (Gaskin 2013). Many food hubs also incorporate efforts to address social, economic, and ecological issues as part of their operation, for example, increasing the availability of healthy, culturally relevant food, providing good jobs, keeping money circulating locally, and promoting sustainable, environmentally friendly production practices (Levkoe 2018).

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Strengthened local & regional food systems
  • Increased access to healthy food

Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes

  • Improved local economy

Evidence of Effectiveness

Food hubs are a suggested strategy to improve local and regional food systems, facilitate fruit and vegetable purchases by schools, hospitals, and small stores, and increase access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods in communities with low incomes (CDC-State indicator 2018, Lerman 2012, Matson 2013, Schmit 2013, USDA-Matson 2013). Food hubs are also a suggested strategy to improve rural economies and increase the economic viability of small- to mid-size farms (Gaskin 2013, NGFN-Food hub, Lerman 2012, Schmit 2013). However, additional evidence is needed to confirm effects.

Food hubs are associated with increased sales opportunities for farmers, increased access to fresh fruits and vegetables for consumers, and increased use of local foods by schools, businesses, and restaurants (Schmidt 2011, USDA-Matson 2013). According to farmer surveys in rural Vermont, food hubs provide a small but important sales opportunity for producers (Conner 2018*). By providing a single reliable point of purchase for high quality produce, food hubs can lower the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables for consumers and institutions such as schools, hospitals, and convenience stores (CDC-State indicator 2018). Food hubs provide a valuable link between local food production and mainstream markets and offer an alternative to the industrial food system for consumers (Levkoe 2018).

Available evidence suggests many food hubs attempt to improve equity in access to healthy foods for communities with low incomes; such efforts are especially common among non-profit, recently established food hubs. For food hubs to succeed in these efforts, they require financial stability for the food hub, fair prices for producers, and affordable products for consumers; in the short-term such efforts can be supported through public subsidies (Hoey 2018).

Food hubs that scale up distribution from direct marketing efforts appear to be more successful than those that scale down from mainstream distribution, and those that prioritize social and environmental goals appear more effective than those that focus primarily on economic goals (Cleveland 2014*). Food hubs that educate and build strong relationships between their consumers, producers, and staff, and use market analysis, business planning, and business best practices appear to have more sustainable program models and business structures than food hubs that do not (LeBlanc 2014*, Severson 2015). Case studies suggest successful food hubs have a strong business plan, a solid financial foundation including capital and infrastructure, a skilled and knowledgeable staff, an awareness of their niche in the local food system, partnerships throughout the food system, an understanding of the market and their customers, and a reliable, consistent supply of quality products (USDA-Feldstein 2017).

Interviews exploring consumer preferences for potential food hubs suggest participants look for availability of whole foods, especially fruits and vegetables; quality, cleanliness, and affordability; programming that builds community; as well as accommodations and cultural accessibility. Food hubs planning to serve communities with low incomes and limited access to fresh produce need to understand potential customer preferences for produce, affordability, and shopping environment to be successful (Clark 2019).

The costs of new infrastructure for cold storage, processing, marketing, and distributing and the need to secure a sizeable number of suppliers and buyers can be challenges to starting a new hub (Lerman 2012). Case studies identify six key challenges for operating a food hub, including balancing supply and demand, maintaining standards for product quality and food safety, aggregating produce quantities at competitive prices, monitoring consumer preferences, accessing infrastructure, and maintaining business stability (Schmit 2019). Case studies of closed food hubs suggest that issues with internal management and board governance are the most significant factors that influence a food hub’s success or failure (USDA-Feldstein 2017).

Impact on Disparities

No impact on disparities likely

Implementation Examples

As of 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports 212 food hubs, 32 state-level food policy councils, and 234 active local food policy councils across the US (CDC-State indicator 2018), for example, Appalachian Harvest in rural Virginia; Good Natured Family Farm regional food hub in Kansas City, Kansas; and Market Mobile regional food hub in Rhode Island and Massachusetts (CDC-HFR 2014). The ReFresh Project in New Orleans is an example of an innovative food hub that collaborates with community development organizations, public health organizations, financial institutions, and private enterprise (RWJF-New Orleans food hub). The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) interviewed 11 food hubs across the country to develop a report on lessons learned for operating successful food hubs, which includes individual profiles and highlights similarities and differences between food hubs in California, Idaho, Indiana, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin (USDA-Matson 2015).

The Michigan Food Hub Learning and Innovation Network facilitates communication, information sharing, and profitable collaboration between 11 active food hubs in Michigan (MSU-MFHN). In California, a proposed network of regional food hubs would support individual regional food hub operations and provide a mechanism for coordination between these regional hubs (RFHAC-Melone 2010).

USDA’s Rural Business Development Grants offer federal funding for community economic development projects such as food hubs (USDA-RBD grants). The Cumberland Farmers’ Market in Tracy City, Tennessee is an example of a community that used a rural development grant to establish a food hub (LHC-Rockeymoore 2014).

The USDA also launched the Local Food System Response to COVID Resource Hub, a searchable database for local food hubs, businesses, and producers to share knowledge and resources to address obstacles and find successful marketing and production strategies and innovations for local and regional markets in response to the COVID-19 pandemic (USDA-COVID response resource hub). Many food hubs, such as the Local Food Hub in Charlottesville, Virginia, are using their role in the local food supply chain to help get food to children and older adults while schools and community gathering locations are closed and working to support farmers and producers that have lost significant sales to restaurants, schools, and universities that are either closed or have significantly reduced capacity and demand during the pandemic (LFH-COVID).

Implementation Resources

USDA-Food hubs - US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). Grant it, food hubs mean more local food for you.

USDA-Barham 2012 - Barham J, Tropp D, Enterline K, Farbman J, Fisk J, Kiraly S. Regional food hub resource guide: Food hub impacts on regional food systems, and the resources available to support their growth and development. Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS); 2012.

USDA-Barham 2015 - Barham J, Delgado F. Building a food hub from the ground up: A facility design case study of Tuscarora organic growers. US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service. 2015:1-16.

USDA-Matson 2015 - Matson J, Thayer J, Shaw J. Running a food hub: Lessons learned from the field. Aiken, South Carolina. US Department of Agriculture (USDA); 2015.

NGFN-Food hub - National Good Food Network (NGFN). Food hub center.

CDC DNPAO-Data - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Division of Nutrition Physical Activity and Obesity (DNPAO). Nutrition, physical activity and obesity: Data, trends and maps online tool.

ChangeLab-Food retail - ChangeLab Solutions. Healthy food retail.

Citations - Evidence

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

CDC-State indicator 2018 - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity (DNPAO). State indicator report on fruits and vegetables, 2018. Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), US Department of Health and Human Services (US DHHS); 2018.

Lerman 2012 - Lerman T, Feenstra G, Visher D. A practitioner’s guide to resources and publications on food hubs and values-based supply chains: A literature review. Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE), Agricultural Sustainability Institute (ASI), University of California, Davis; 2012.

Matson 2013 - Matson J, Thayer J. The role of food hubs in food supply chains. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. 2013;3(4):43–7.

Schmit 2013 - Schmit TM, Jablonski BBR, Kay D. Assessing the economic impacts of regional food hubs: The case of regional access. Ithaca: Cornell University; 2013.

USDA-Matson 2013 - Matson J, Sullins M, Cook C. The role of food hubs in local food marketing. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development. 2013;73:1-56.

Gaskin 2013 - Gaskin JW, Munden-Dixon K, Furman C, Beechuck M. Is there farmer interest in food hubs in Georgia? A needs assessment survey. Athens: College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences (CAES), University of Georgia; 2013.

NGFN-Food hub - National Good Food Network (NGFN). Food hub center.

Schmidt 2011 - Schmidt MC, Kolodinsky JM, Desisto TP, Conte FC. Increasing farm income and local food access: A case study of a collaborative aggregation, marketing, and distribution strategy that links farmers to markets. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. 2011;1(4):157–75.

Conner 2018* - Conner DS, Sims K, Berkfield R, Harrington H. Do farmers and other suppliers benefit from sales to food hubs? Evidence from Vermont. Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition. 2018;13(4):507-516.

Levkoe 2018 - Levkoe C, Hammelman C, Craven L, et al. Building sustainable communities through food hubs: Practitioner and academic perspectives. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. 2018;8(2):107-122.

Hoey 2018 - Hoey L, Fink Shapiro L, Bielaczyc N. “Put on your own mask before helping others”: The capacity of food hubs to build equitable food access. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. 2018;8(3):41-60.

Cleveland 2014* - Cleveland DA, Muller NM, Tranovich AC, Mazaroli DK, Hinson K. Local food hubs for alternative food systems: A case study from Santa Barbara County, California. Journal of Rural Studies. 2014;35:26-36.

LeBlanc 2014* - LeBlanc JR, Conner D, McRae G, Darby H. Building resilience in nonprofit food hubs. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. 2014;4(3):121-135.

Severson 2015 - Severson RM, Schmit TM. Building success of food hubs through the cooperative experience: A case study perspective. Ithaca: Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cornell University; 2015.

USDA-Feldstein 2017 - Feldstein S, Barham J. Running a food hub: Learning from food hub closures. US Department of Agriculture (USDA); 2017;4.

Clark 2019 - Clark J, Rouse C, Sehgal A, et al. A food hub to address healthy food access gaps: Residents’ preferences. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. 2019;9(1):59-68.

Schmit 2019 - Schmit TM, Severson RM. Building success of food hubs through the cooperative experience - A case study perspective. Journal of Extension. 2019;57(1):1-9.

Citations - Implementation Examples

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

CDC-State indicator 2018 - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity (DNPAO). State indicator report on fruits and vegetables, 2018. Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), US Department of Health and Human Services (US DHHS); 2018.

CDC-HFR 2014 - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity. Healthier food retail (HFR): An action guide for public health practitioners. 2014.

RWJF-New Orleans food hub - Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). Culture of health blog: A ReFreshing collaboration is building better health in New Orleans.

USDA-Matson 2015 - Matson J, Thayer J, Shaw J. Running a food hub: Lessons learned from the field. Aiken, South Carolina. US Department of Agriculture (USDA); 2015.

MSU-MFHN - Michigan State University (MSU), Center for Regional Food Systems. Michigan Food Hub Learning and Innovation Network (MFHN): Providing development and leadership expertise for Michigan businesses that facilitate the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution, and/or marketing of local and regional food products.

RFHAC-Melone 2010 - Melone B, Cardenas E, Cochran J, et al. California network of regional food hubs: A vision statement and strategic implementation plan. Regional Food Hub Advisory Council (RFHAC). 2010.

USDA-RBD grants - US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Rural business development (RBD) grants.

LHC-Rockeymoore 2014 - Rockeymoore M, Moscetti C, Fountain A. Rural Childhood Obesity Prevention Toolkit. Leadership for Healthy Communities (LHC), Center for Global Policy Solutions, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. 2014.

USDA-COVID response resource hub - US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). USDA launches a resource hub on local food system response to COVID-19.

LFH-COVID - Local Food Hub (LFH). Bridging the gaps in the time of COVID19.

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