March 16 – 22, 2015

#42: Regional Food Hub

Introduction by Philip Ackermen-Leist, author and educator

As we work to rebuild our foodsheds, regional food hubs are an integral ingredient. When “local” began to re-root in the American landscape and psyche during the first decade of the 21st century, we tended to celebrate the two ends of sustainable food systems: farm gate and dinner plate. We nearly forgot that we also had to fiddle with the middle—the supply chain components that drive (sometimes literally) our successes: aggregation, processing, storage, and distribution of products. Perhaps we didn’t adequately acknowledge the realities of bricks and mortar, mechanization, food safety hurdles, transportation logistics…not to mention the need for consistency and reliability of product for a broader marketplace. Or maybe the need for capital to fund the critical infrastructure of the middle simply overwhelmed us in those early days of “local.”

Regardless, the insatiable behemeths of the food economy spent the last half of the 20th century devastating small- and mid-scale farms and food entrepreneurs, and we are now tasked with reseeding the landscape with scale-appropriate solutions such as regional food hubs, the infrastructure of a new middle that generally collects, prepares, markets, and distributes products from a diverse array of farmers and processors. While the components, ownership models, and management approaches vary widely among regional food hubs, they nonetheless tend to serve a shared purpose–knitting together a variety of local food enterprises into what can be more effective and resilient regional market opportunities. These regional food hubs leave us with two fascinating questions to explore together: Is there a connection between common goods and the common good, and how can we best link local and regional initiatives?

Philip_Ackermen-LeistFarmer and professor Philip Ackerman-Leist teaches at Green Mountain College (GMC) in Poultney, Vermont, where he established the college farm and is the Director of the GMC Farm & Food Project.  He founded the nation’s first online Masters in Sustainable Food Systems  program and is author of Rebuilding the Foodshed and Up Tunket Road.

In this week’s Food List, we learn how regional food hubs empower small-scale farmers and instill within communities a greater appreciation for local food systems.

While there are many local-centric models, like CSAs, that remove the middleman and bring the farm directly into the kitchen, Grist suggests that regional food hubs are the missing link that fosters local support for small and micro farms. This missing link is being recognized as a strategy for nurturing food businesses in cities, such as San Francisco.

Not only do food hubs provide a market outlet for many food producers, as Nourish explains, they also restore and strengthen local food systems. In fact, regional food hubs may be the next step to taking “good food” mainstream.

Our friends at Re:Vision in Denver recognize the value of regional food hubs and cooperative distribution, and share with us their vision of making healthy food affordable and accessible.

We wrap up this week’s Food List with Rich Pirog’s reflection on relationships in local food systems.

Local food systems flourish with the help of local support. How does your community thrive?

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Local Food Systems

A local food system is a method of food production and distribution that is geographically localized. In this way, the food miles are minimized and the local economy is strengthened.


”While natural resources and economic infrastructure provide a template for conceptualizing a foodshed, a foodshed doesn’t really exist until a collective vision is called for and cast — whether by engaged citizens, concerned consumers, entrepreneurs, or policymakers. Foodshed boundaries are perhaps best defined by common cause rather geopolitical boundaries or even topography. Ultimately, a prospering and healthy foodshed is circumscribed by the periphery of a community’s ability to create positive change for the common good. When common goods are linked to the common good, the scales tip from default to design, and the foodshed becomes a collaborative vision and a shared reality.”  – Philip Ackerman-Leist, author of Rebuilding the Foodshed

Regional Food Hub

”Support local farmers by providing distribution for their products, like, for example, organic crops. They also plays a critical role in transitioning conventional growers towards organic agriculture by providing access to a growing base of organic consumers.”  – Julie Tilt of Hummingbird Wholesale

Cooperative Distribution

“Coordinates supply and distribution systems, enabling farms to thrive by allowing them to focus on growing quality produce instead of the selling, marketing and delivery of their product.” – Brian Keogh of Organically Grown Company

Local Book Cover

Title: Regional Food Hub
Location: Hummingbird Wholesalers, Republic of Eugene, OR
Featuring: Julie Tilt
Found on Page 62 in Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America

A regional food hub is centrally located for the use of aggregation, storage, processing, marketing, and distribution of regionally produced food products. Hummingbird’s customers don’t want their food “From China,” so the company focuses on creating food security for the local community. Hummingbird distributes 225 different products from San Francisco to Seattle, with 85% of its customers are from Oregon. They work with 16 regional farmers and carry organic locally grown wheat, teff and flour, transitional garbanzo and lentils, local honeys, local organic filberts, dried cranberries, organic blueberries and prunes, organic cornmeal, organic wild rice, organic black beans and flax seed — and this is only a partial list.

As a micro distributor, Hummingbird supports local farmers by providing distribution of their products and also plays a role in transitioning conventional growers towards organic agriculture by providing access to a growing base of organic consumers. As a micro processor, Hummingbird processes foods that are made from locally sourced ingredients, so as to eliminate the need for a lengthy supply chain and, instead, centralizes the regions’ food needs.


Food Hubs: Sustainable Agriculture’s Missing Link

Screen Shot 2015-03-14 at 21.01.21Nathanael Johnson appreciates the middleman in the food system. The middleman is often responsible for transporting and distributing goods between farmers and eaters. As Johnson observes, “From the outside, the middleman just looks like a barrier between the consumer and low wholesale prices. But for small producers, having a middleman can dramatically expand the number of eaters who can buy their stuff.” A middleman solution for many small-farm operations has come in the form of food hubs. Johnson investigates one food hub, Veritable Vegetable, that has been running under the radar for the last 40 years. While big distributors work with large scale, commercial farms, they have little incentive to work next to small farms. Food hubs, such as Veritable Vegetable, service small farms and provide a connection between farmers and eaters.

Learn more about how food hubs connect farmers to eaters.


A Strategy for Nurturing Food Businesses

Screen Shot 2015-03-14 at 21.13.17A key challenge for most food entrepreneurs is not the creation and production of goods, but the distribution of their products. In a collaborative effort to address this hurdle, San Francisco’s Planning Department partnered with the Office of Economic and Workforce Development and SPUR to author the report Makers & Movers Economic Cluster Strategy, detailing “[a]n economic cluster strategy […] to help food & beverage producers and distributors start, stay, and grow their business in San Francisco.” “San Francisco already has the infrastructure of a food hub — the question is how to make sure it continues to thrive,” points out Eli Zigas, of SPUR

Read more about SF’s commitment to helping local food businesses thrive.

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Dreaming New Mexico

shutterstock_61111810-300x200“What is an agro-ecoregion? Why is it such an important frame of reference?” Nourish poses these questions to Peter Warshall, Co-Director of Dreaming New Mexico, to better understand how to build a stronger, resilient, local food system. Warshall notes, “[it is important to] provide strategies that are crop and meat specific, and also specific to the dreams of individuals and organizations.” One such strategy is building a regional food hub because they help preserve local farms and generate jobs, as Warshall is witnessing in New Mexico. Warshall believes that local food systems bridge the “nature-deficient disorder” of our society, and sees local prosperity initiatives, such as food hubs, as one of the many solutions.

Read more about restoring and strengthening local food systems with Paul Warshall.


The Next Steps for Taking “Good Food” Mainstream

NCFNThe Wallace Center’s 2014 report “Food Hubs: Solving Local” explores five promising case studies and argues that food hubs are critical in scaling up local food while retaining local foods integrity. The Center — dedicated to making “Good Food” more readily accessible and affordable by bringing it to larger markets — hopes that “Solving Local” will push food retail buyers and distributors to build and strengthen food hub relationships. As local food scales up, moving beyond farmers markets and CSAs, “local” must not only retain its central values, but ensure the larger market absorbs and shares in those same values. Food hubs are promising in their dedication to not only maintaining, but spreading, local “good food” values.

Read more about food hubs maintaining local values.


The Story of Westwood Food Coop


In partnership with the Westwood community, Re:Vision is incubating the Westwood Food Coop; Denver’s first community owned urban food hub and cooperative grocery store. It is one of the first food hubs in the country that is owned and operated by consumers, producers, and employees.

Westwood is a neighborhood, like hundreds of others across the US, which are labeled as “a food desert,” meaning most of its residents don’t have access to healthy affordable food. Living in a food desert is a struggle. Residents suffer from health issues like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. With few local stores to draw a customer base and revenue, the neighborhood and its residents lack economic opportunity.

The Westwood Food Coop will be owned and operated by residents in Westwood, making healthy food affordable and accessible, and bringing investment back into the community.

The 74,000 square foot site was purchased in 2014, and will include a commercial kitchen & food hub, a grocery store, a café, a co-working space, and a community fitness center – all accessible right in the heart of the neighborhood on Morrison Road.

When visiting the Westwood Food Co-op, you will see residents of Westwood shopping, because it is a close, affordable, option where any resident of the community can become a member. When you go to the produce aisle, alongside more conventionally sourced produce, you could pick out carrots and tomatoes that were grown right down the block, because gardening families in the community can become producer members and sell their excess produce to the co-op. At the register, the cashier will be one of 30+ employees from the neighborhood, because the co-op employs locally. There will be classes on canning or producing salsas run by the community in the commercial kitchen. There will be members of the community packaging and preparing food for Denver-wide distribution in the food hub. And there will be kids playing safely in a courtyard built for special community events.

Every single one of these members has a vote to elect a board of directors and weigh in on big decisions. As a multi-stakeholder cooperative (meaning consumers, producers, and employees can all be members) each member has a voice, ownership, and the opportunities for rewards. At the end of the year, if the cooperative is profitable, dividends will be distributed to each member based on their contributions to the cooperative.

This model is ground breaking, with few others like it in the country. It integrates food production, distribution, and consumption from soil to plate. Now is the time to help us build this monumental contribution to Denver, from the ground-up.

The construction-site for the Westwood Food Co-op is a retired junk-yard. It’s a lot of work to reform this plot of abandoned land into a food oasis. We’re looking for every-kind of support to build the Westwood Food Co-op, brick by brick.

There is a lot to do. We are growing neighborhood-driven solutions, and we need everyone to make them a reality. Join us!

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Local Book Cover

Title: Cooperative Distribution
Location: Organically Grown Company, Eugene, OR
Featuring: Brian Keogh
Found on Page 64 in Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America

Cooperative Distribution is a coordinated supply and distribution system that enables farms to thrive by allowing them focus on growing quality produce instead of selling, marketing, and delivery of their product.

Brian, of Organically Grown Company, says, “By the time most food reaches the end-consumer they have very little awareness of its growing conditions or environmental impact, or even who the farmer is.”

Brian Keogh says distributors play a key role in handling nuanced logistics and marketing that connect supply-side “growers” with demand-side “eaters.” Fruit and vegetable growers face constant ups and downs, like weather related crop failures, transportation issues, and price spikes. Distributors help smooth out the bumps at the retail level by coordinating transport and production. They can also educate buyers about seasonality, new and heirloom varieties, family farming, fair trade certification, organic farming practices, sustainable packaging, and more. Distributors, such as Organically Grown Company, also help regional growers coordinate annual production and map out what crops and volumes to grow so as to meet predicted demand

Organically Grown Company is farmer and employee owned. Prosperity is shared among all stakeholders to create an even distribution of wealth, helping both the distributor and farmer share in the profits of a successful business.

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Defining Relationships in Local Food Systems

An Interview with Rich Pirog

Food miles, relationships, regional boundaries — these are some of the things that define the conversation about what a “local” food system is. Rich Pirog considers how appropriateness to the region and culture is crucial when deciding the boundaries of building local food systems and economies.

Douglas Gayeton: People seem to understand the principle of “local”. How would you explain what a “regional food system” is?

Rich Pirog: A lot of the confusion around local and regional is caused by the notion that it has to be a certain distance, or it has to be based on some kind of geographic boundary like a state, a county or a city. There isn’t a set definition for “regional food systems”, just like there isn’t a set definition for “local”. The definition for local, in the last farm bill, had a mileage figure: anything that was within 400 miles. But that doesn’t mean there is a fixed definition that everybody has adopted. Using the term “regional” instead of “local” when describing food systems comes into play when people are starting to look at areas that have some kind of distinctive, ecological, environmental, or cultural characteristics.

Douglas GayetonWhat are the necessary ingredients needed for a healthy and vital local or regional food system?

Rich Pirog: Economics, environment and community are the three legs of the stool of sustainable agriculture. When one of those is missing, the stool is unstable. When you don’t have all of those capitals working within a region, it erodes the other capitals and you tend to not have the collective wealth needed for a society to thrive.

Metaphorically speaking, you wouldn’t want to plant local food businesses in an infertile seedbed. You’d want to have a very rich seedbed that had high soil quality, access to nutrients and water, and was tended to well. It is difficult if we don’t have the environment or the cultural, financial, political or other capitals to support policies that would allow producers, consumers and processors to support local and regional food.

Douglas Gayeton: I was talking to Michael Sligh from RAFI about local food systems and scale and he said, “It’s not about being small. It’s about being appropriate.” Do you agree with the idea of appropriateness?

Rich Pirog: Appropriateness really resounds with me. When I visited researchers in France studying local food, they were fascinated that we would even consider distance to be part of the equation because they said it really was about relationships. These researchers were studying what they would call “short supply chains” and it was really about the number of intermediaries in the chain and how well the story of the farmer was understood by the buyer. Local was referenced as relationship, not as a distance.

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Rich PirogRich Pirog joined the newly created Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University as senior associate director in May 2011. His current work includes developing a statewide food hub learning and innovation network and providing oversight to new Center work groups that include Center and MSU faculty and staff. Pirog’s research and collaborations on local foods, food networks and communities of practice, food value chains, and ecolabels has been published in magazines and media outlets across the globe, used by local food practitioners, and are often cited in books and college courses.

3 Things You Can Do

    1. Buy local! As a greater demand for local goods grows, so does the generation of local jobs and the local economy.
    2. Support your regional food supply chain! There are many ways in which you can contribute to this growth, whether an investor, a policy maker, a producer, or a consumer.
    3. Shed light on your local producers with a photo contest! We want to see some of the favorite local goods that you can only find in your area. Whether it’s a regionally produced root vegetable or an artisanal snack, we’re celebrating the bounty and diversity of local regional foodsheds. Here is a chance to highlight some of your favorite local goods, and win a prize in the end!
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