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 models1, 2. Food hubs often provide participating farmers with access to marketing and sales services, value-added processing, advertising, delivery trucks, and liability insurance3. 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 practices4.
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 incomes5, 6, 7, 8, 9. Food hubs are also a suggested strategy to improve rural economies and increase the economic viability of small- to mid-size farms3, 6, 8. 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 restaurants9, 10. According to farmer surveys in rural Vermont, food hubs provide a small but important sales opportunity for producers11. 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 stores5. Food hubs provide a valuable link between local food production and mainstream markets and offer an alternative to the industrial food system for consumers4.
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 subsidies12.
Food hubs may increase access to fresh produce and seasonal, locally grown foods, which may reduce emissions from fossil fuels used to produce, process, and transport food13, 14, 15. Food hub participation may also reduce the energy intensity of an individual’s diet if more plant-based foods are consumed in place of animal products13.
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 goals16. 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 not17, 18. 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 products19.
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 successful20.
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 hub6. 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 stability21. 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 failure19.
Impact on Disparities
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 US5, 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 Massachusetts22. 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 enterprise23. 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 Wisconsin24. The Michigan Food Hub Learning and Innovation Network facilitates communication, information sharing, and profitable collaboration between 11 active food hubs in Michigan25.
USDA’s Rural Business Development Grants offer federal funding for community economic development projects such as food hubs26. The Cumberland Farmers’ Market in Tracy City, Tennessee is an example of a community that used a rural development grant to establish a food hub27.
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 pandemic28. 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 pandemic29.
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.
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.
ISU-Food and sustainability resources - Iowa State University (ISU), Sustainable Food Processing Alliance. Online resources for food and sustainability.
* Journal subscription may be required for access.
1 USDA-Diamond 2012 - Diamond A, Barham J. Moving food along the value chain: Innovations in regional food distribution. Washington, DC: Marketing Services Division, Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), US Department of Agriculture (USDA); 2012.
2 Horst 2011* - Horst M, Ringstrom E, Tyman S, Ward MK, Werner V. Toward a more expansive understanding of food hubs. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. 2011;2(1):209–25.
3 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.
4 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.
5 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.
6 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.
7 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.
8 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.
9 USDA-Matson 2013 - Matson J, Sullins M, Cook C. The role of food hubs in local food marketing. US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development. 2013;73:1-56.
10 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.
11 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.
12 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.
13 Ringling 2020 - Ringling KM, Marquart LF. Intersection of diet, health, and environment: Land grant universities’ role in creating platforms for sustainable food systems. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems. 2020;4(70).
14 SSSA-McIvor 2017 - McIvor K. Soils in the city: Community gardens. Soil Science Society of America (SSSA). 2017.
15 CCAFS-Campbell 2012 - Campbell B. Is eating local good for the climate? Thinking beyond food miles. Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), CGIAR Research Programs. 2012.
16 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.
17 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.
18 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.
19 USDA-Feldstein 2017 - Feldstein S, Barham J. Running a food hub: Learning from food hub closures. US Department of Agriculture (USDA); 2017;4.
20 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.
21 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.
22 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.
23 RWJF-New Orleans food hub - Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). Culture of health blog: A ReFreshing collaboration is building better health in New Orleans.
24 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.
25 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.
26 USDA-RBD grants - US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Rural business development (RBD) grants.
27 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.
28 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.
29 LFH-COVID - Local Food Hub (LFH). Bridging the gaps in the time of COVID19. Charlottesville, VA.
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