Food Hubs- essential infrastructure for a Fair Food System

nick rose

An article from AFHN founding member Nick Rose, who also happens to be Project Coordinator, Food Systems, at the Food Alliance (Deakin University), National Coordinator of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) and a Director of the Food Connect Foundation. In July 2013 he was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to travel to the US and Argentina to investigate innovative models of urban agriculture. For other insightful and informative pieces on shaking up the food system check out his personal blog where this article was published. 

A version also appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday 21.4.12.

Last time I wrote about the efforts underway in Girgarre to turn a new page in the history of the Australian co-operative movement, by launching a ‘Food Hub’ manufacturing centre that is co-operatively owned and run by workers, growers and the broader community.

I’m happy to report that while Heinz has now sold its Girgarre site to another buyer, the Goulburn Valley Food Action Committee has found an alternative greenfield site in Kyabram, and are planning to launch the first of their new products, designed by Peter Russell-Clark, by the middle of May. The results of their feasibility study have now come in, and they show, according to Chairperson Les Cameron, that ‘demand for Australian product is greater than ever before…the Heinz approach of creating a product, marketing it and then trying to sell it through the major supermarkets is no longer the way to go. [The study] is showing a number of significant, medium-size companies are looking for Australian product; and sub groups who will not buy anything else.’

So far, so good. I’m following these developments with great interest. When their products are available in Coffs Harbour, I’ll be sure to let you know!

But back to the question: what is a Food Hub? In essence, it’s a conscious attempt to scale up local and regional food economies. If there’s been a single persistent and fairly persuasive criticism of the local food movement over the years, it’s this: that while its aims and principles might be great, and while farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture might work quite well for smaller producers, local food as a whole actually fails to deliver the goods in terms of offering reliable markets with sufficient throughput and volumes for commercial-scale farmers.

That function, so this reasoning goes, can only be filled by central wholesale markets; or, in this country, by supermarket distribution centres.

The Food Hub is an attempt to tackle this criticism head-on.  Originating in the United States in the 1990s, Food Hubs have expanded across that country, with more than 100 in operation, and many experiencing strong growth and expansion. Their primary functions are typically the aggregation, marketing and distribution of local fresh and processed produce. In some ways they resemble a wholesaler, but with the key difference that their mandate is to source as much local produce as possible, and channel it into local businesses, institutions and households. In the process they create more demand for local food, help build the capacity of local producers, and get much better returns for farmers than they receive in the central market system.

All the things a Local Food Hub can do

All the things a Local Food Hub can do

Government purchasing power seems to have played a big role in fostering the growth of Food Hubs, with 40% counting among their clients public institutions such as schools and hospitals.

According to a recent survey of Food Hubs by the US Department of Agriculture, some of the longer-running hubs have become significant local businesses. One has 100 suppliers, including many small and mid-sized producers, and offers over 7,000 products. This Hub owns a 30,000 sq.ft. warehouse and 11 trucks, with 34 full-time employees and over US$6 million in sales in 2010.

But Food Hubs can do much more than aggregation, marketing and distribution. As in the Goulburn Valley, they can combine manufacturing and processing with innovative product development and multiple traineeships. The Local Food Hub in Charlottesville has a five-acre demonstration farm, where they run training days for local growers and offer apprenticeships and internships for the next generation of farmers. 20% of the food grown on this farm is donated to local food banks and anti-hunger organisations.

And so on. Because there’s no single business model, and because these hubs are locally-owned and controlled, responding to local needs and priorities, the forms they take will vary widely. That they are emerging and expanding at this point in time, when the existing food system is plagued by so many profound dysfunctionalities, is a cause for great optimism.

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