Taking A More Holistic Approach to Food Hub Feasibility: A 3-Part Blog Series

Evidence shows food hubs can play a role in solving complex problems in our food system. Food hubs are relatively new on the scene – we’ve only been studying, experimenting, and talking about them for less than a decade – which means they present a lot of opportunity for creating resilient regional food systems. Building sustainable models and understanding a food hub’s true viability requires a feasibility study that takes a holistic approach.

Over the next few months, Ag Innovations will be writing a series of blog posts that weave together insights from a growing body of food systems research and personal experience in food hub development. These posts will cover the efficacy of food hubs, their collaborative nature, and how value is communicated through them. In this first post, we’ll focus on terminology and why understanding context (society, culture and geography, etc) should play a vital role in feasibility research. The goal is to develop a framework that can help us assess the effects of food systems developments, including food hubs.

The Efficacy of Food Hubs

What is a food hub? A food hub is an inherently different type of business than a wholesale distributor, commercial kitchen, a farmers market or even a CSA (community support agriculture). As we begin this series, let’s agree on a definition. According to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service:

food hubs are part of an “emerging sector of food enterprises that seek to ramp up the amount of source-identified local and regional food product available to retail, commercial food service and institutional customers by providing aggregation, storage, processing and/or distribution services on an affordable basis to small and mid-scale producers, along with targeted training and guidance aimed at improving their ability to supply larger-volume wholesale buyers.”

Whew! That’s a lengthy description, but it helps us clarify the terminology.

Many food hubs across the country have been successfully bridging the gap between the local food economy and food access – identifying and/or creating new markets for farms, adding much needed agricultural infrastructure, and uniting diverse stakeholders through a common cause. Food hubs have also sparked innovation around climate change mitigation (i.e. shared use cold storage, focus on smaller-scale, low-input farms, and the use of hybrid or electric trucks). Food hubs are a rising tide that lift all boats.

As desirable as these outcomes are, if you’re looking to build a food hub in your region, you’ll need to do much more homework to ensure its success. It is important to understand the context of your project before diving in. You and your collaborators should at least be able to identify how your project contributes positively to the entirety of the food system in your area, beyond an organization’s fiscal or political motivations and goals.

Food hub feasibility studies are helpful in determining risk before investing resources into a project, and it helps plan a course of action to understand your market. Too many of these studies don’t take into account the bigger picture related to food systems change. As you work on your food hub feasibility, consider the following:

  • How does your project relate to the entirety of the food system, not just your single organization’s motivations and goals? Review the Institute of Medicine’s Framework to Assessing the Effects of the Food System and think about your project in relation to each impact area (a helpful infographic Figure 2-8 shows links between the food supply chain and the larger biophysical and social/institutional context).
  • There are excellent resources available online through the National Good Food Network Food Hub Collaboration that can assist food hub developers with their planning. They also host a wonderful national conference every two years. Look out for it in 2016.

In a few weeks we’ll return to this series and discuss Food Hubs and the Collaborative Process. Stay tuned!