Hubs link consumers with local farm food

Food produced by area farmers is packed at Intervale Food Hub in Burlington, Vt., for delivery to members.
Food produced by area farmers is packed at Intervale Food Hub in Burlington, Vt., for delivery to members. Associated Press

Move over, farmers markets. More than 300 food hubs around the country are also providing small farms outlets to sell locally raised food to consumers.

There’s no one model for a food hub – it depends on the market, the location and what it is grown in that area. Some collect food from farms and dole it out to customers in weekly deliveries. Other hubs help consumers, restaurants, colleges and institutions to source food online. But producers and consumers agree the goal is the same: to connect producers with the growing number of shoppers who want locally raised food.

“We’ve seen in the last few years in particular as local and region food systems have grown and become not only larger but kind of more sophisticated that there has been a need for sort of the logistics of moving food from the field to the consumers. And food hubs kind of fill that space,” said Doug O’Brien, deputy undersecretary for rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency spent about $25 million from 2009 to 2013 supporting food hubs.

The number of food hubs has doubled over the past six years, and many are in urban areas, with the Northeast leading the way. Some operate as nonprofits; others are for-profit or producer-consumer cooperatives. Some are modeled after community supported agriculture, in which consumers pay upfront for food throughout the season.

That’s how the Intervale Food Hub in Burlington, Vt., works, with 30 farms, 15 specialty producers and 1,100 members who pick up their weekly bundles at various sites around the city. The venture started in 2008 with 192 members and 24 farms.

Legal secretary Betsy Bourbeau says the food hub’s deliveries to her place of work are more convenient than shopping at farmers markets and cuts down time spent at the store.

For farmers, food hubs provide distribution, marketing and, in some cases, processing and storage.

Predicting what will sell at a farmers market is a challenge, according to Ray Tyler of Rosecreek Farms in Selmer, Tenn. By getting involved with the Bring It Food Hub in Memphis, Tyler can plan ahead for the next growing season, when the hub plans to double its membership to 400.

“Basically instead of us spending all this time on marketing, we can now spend more time doing what we love to do, and that is growing great food,” he said.

The emerging business model can be challenging, says Bring It Food Hub operations manager Alex Greene, because you have to cater to customers and be flexible with farmers, whose product is at the mercy of weather. Food hub leaders need “a sense of the end product” and have to learn the logistics, plus “managing the website, the online credit card system and other technical matters,” Greene said.