Purchasing local food continues to be a strong trend according to recent polls of food retailers, food service directors, and chefs. Across the country, more consumers are requesting foods that are produced locally, and retailers are developing new or expanding existing relationships with growers to respond to the demand. Small direct-market growers may have the capacity to sell to a few restaurants and one or two retail stores beyond their farmer’s markets base. However, it usually takes a coordinated effort to “scale up” local food supply to respond to the larger volumes demanded across retail and food service markets.
Food hubs—centrally-located facilities with a business management structure facilitating the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution, and/or marketing of local and regional food products—may help address the infrastructure challenge and facilitate market opportunities for smaller producers to reach larger, higher volume markets.
The aggregation, processing, distributing and marketing of food is nothing new; it is part and parcel of the everyday commerce found in food supply chains. What distinguishes food hubs from other aggregation/distribution systems is a commitment to working with small and mid-size farmers to provide local and regional foods, and the positive local economic, community and environmental benefits that may come from these food sales. For example, forty percent of the food hubs participating in a recent national survey indicated they were operating in rural or urban areas that had limited access to food items such as fresh fruits and vegetables.
Surveys of local food growers and food entrepreneurs in Michigan reveal a need for increased marketing, business education, and technical and financial assistance to build local food supply to meet demand. The state of Michigan is taking a leadership role in building the capacity of food hubs. The Michigan State University (MSU) Center for Regional Food Systems, Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), and other state agencies are partnering to integrate food hub and regional food commerce resources to help Michigan’s regional food and farm businesses succeed.
A substantial resource in this partnership is seed funding for food hubs from MDARD. Approximately $900,000 of the $1.9 million available for value-added agriculture and regional food grants in fall 2012 was directed to five food hub projects across the state, in Detroit, Ann Arbor, Lansing, Traverse City, and the Upper Peninsula. MDARD also added two field staff members that spend part of their time providing technical assistance to food hubs.
Another key component in the state’s food hub development and expansion is the Michigan Food Hub Learning and Innovation Network, led by the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems in collaboration with Morse Marketing Connections, LLC, and MDARD. The network has regional food hub consultants operating out of the Upper Peninsula, Gaylord, Ann Arbor, Lansing, Flint, Battle Creek, Detroit and Muskegon. The purpose of the network is to facilitate increased learning, innovation, and profitability for participating food hubs, as well as increased access to food hub financial and technical assistance, research, and education. The network also hopes to foster increased business-to-business collaboration across food hubs.
The National Food Hub Collaboration led by the Wallace Center at Winrock International is working to ensure the success of existing and emerging food hubs in the U.S. by building capacity through connection, outreach, research, technical assistance and partnerships. The Michigan Food Hub Network will partner with the National Food Hub Collaboration in connecting Michigan food hubs and other regional food businesses with educational, technical, and financial resources and expertise available across the country.
The Michigan network also will reach out to food hubs in Ohio and other neighboring states looking for technical support and learning opportunities.
There are a number of opportunities to learn more about and connect with those working in food hubs through the Michigan Food Hub Learning and Innovation Network and its regional consultants. You can join the network’s listserv or participate in the next statewide food hub meeting on February 28, 2013. Visit www.foodsystems.msu.edu/activities/food-hub-network for more information or contact the network’s co-conveners: Rich Pirog, MSU Center for Regional Food Systems, firstname.lastname@example.org Marty Gerencer, Morse Marketing Connections, LLC, email@example.com