Food hubs: Clarifying the concept

Food hubs help small farmers to aggregate their product and distribute it locally to institutions, schools, restaurants and stores.

With continued growth and interest in food hubs in the great lakes region there is a need to continue to clarify exactly what a food hub is and isn’t. Michigan State University Extension strives to assist communities by providing relevant information about food hub systems and provide technical assistance to people representing a number of food system related businesses.

According to the USDA Regional Resource Food Hub Guide, “Regional food hubs are key mechanisms for creating large, consistent, reliable supplies of mostly locally or regionally produced foods.” These businesses operate mostly on the supply side and primarily service wholesale customers, such as institutions, restaurants and stores. It is also common for some food hubs to assist in warehousing functions, food processing and other partnerships.

Food hubs work closely with small-scale farms and businesses to help them meet the demands of their buyers. Food hubs can assist in local marketing efforts by promoting opportunities for group branding, getting unusual or heirloom varieties noticed and promoting specialty and artisan products. Food hubs are not defined so much by their business structure but by their function and producer outcomes.

Clearly, food hubs are much more than local food distributors; they are complete food systems. They can also help small innovators start with successful business models through additional offerings such as licensed rental production kitchens and other certified processing facilities. It is common to see these small businesses open retail shops near or within similar locations as their “incubator” assistant food hub group. This is considered value added product development; creating a hybridized type of food hub that actively links the producer and buyer for both wholesale and retail consumers.

Food hubs are not and do not replace farmers markets. Farmers markets are primarily retail (farm-to-consumer) operations. A food hub’s main purpose is to help small farmers gain access to larger volume markets by coordinating a local supply chain through a network of local wholesale partnerships. For more information about community food systems and food hubs contact Michigan State University Extension Community Food System educators who are working across Michigan to provide community food systems educational programming and assistance.