Regional food hub facilitates farm-to-school efforts in northwest Michigan

As the local food movement builds across Michigan and demand increases for locally grown agricultural products, an opportunity exists for Michigan farmers to expand their markets to include institutional buyers.

As the local food movement builds across Michigan and demand increases for locally-grown agricultural products, an opportunity exists for Michigan farmers to expand their markets to include institutional buyers. However, without access to expensive washing, sorting and processing equipment, this market demand may remain unmet.

Food hubs may provide an avenue for small and mid-scale producers to enter this growing market. In a 2012 resource guide, the USDA defines regional food hub as: “a business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail, and institutional demand.”

Shared processing equipment and storage can help overcome the large capital costs that are increasingly prohibitive for a single farmer or business and can also encourage regional economic development. As USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack suggests:

“Skyrocketing consumer demand for local and regional food is an economic opportunity for America’s farmers and ranchers. Food hubs facilitate access to these markets by offering critical aggregation, marketing, distribution and other services to farmers and ranchers. By serving as a link between the farm or ranch and regional buyers, food hubs keep more of the retail food dollar circulating in the local economy. In effect, the success of regional food hubs comes from entrepreneurship, sound business sense and a desire for social impact.“ 

In northwest Michigan, Michigan State University Extension and project partners including the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments, Michigan Land Use Institute, Oryana Natural Foods Coop, Cherry Capital Foods and others recently formed a 501(c)(3) non-profit, the “Grand Traverse Foodshed Alliance” (GTFA), to help build the region’s local food economy and facilitate farm-to-school purchasing. A Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development Value Added grant and USDA Farm to School grant helped offset the cost of washing and processing equipment, refrigerator and freezer storage and infrastructure improvements. Once the hub is complete, the GTFA will be located alongside Cherry Capital Foods, a regional food distributor, as well as several agri-food related businesses. One of the first tenants will be a farmer consortium that is comprised of several vegetable farmers in the region who will be collectively processing and supplying local schools. Being located next to a regional foods distributor that is already making deliveries to schools is an important benefit, since each farmer is not responsible for delivery to multiple schools.

Co-location and collaboration are the key elements helping farmers meet the demand for locally grown agricultural products. However, it takes time and effort in the form of facilitated discussions with farmers, food service directors, distributors and other agri-food interests. But with continued effort, farmers, school children and the local economy stand to benefit.

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