Food hubs: Moving From Heroic to Strategic

by Alice Rolls

(This article was first published in the Winter 2011/2012 issue of Georgia Organics’ quarterly newsletter, “The Dirt” )

Guest blogger Alice Rolls

There’s no question that connecting the dots from farm to table logistically can downright daunting. A chef committed to local and organic food might feel like a switchboard operator, calling multiple farmers to pair their menus with various harvest and delivery schedules.A school nutrition director who wants to procure local food not only has to build relationships with producers from scratch, but also has to navigate the dizzying labyrinth of nutrition, health, and agricultural rules to get healthy food onto cafeteria trays at an affordable price.

Making the local links demands almost herculean efforts. The appeal of simply calling a big food distributor is understandable. Entrepreneurial momentum is building for gaps in the supply chain to be filled by innovative “food hubs” that can emerge where there were none before. Food hubs are about as difficult to define as “sustainability”, but here’s the working definition from the USDA:

A food hub is a business or organization that manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified local and regional food products primarily from small to mid-sized producers to wholesalers, retailers, and/or institutional buyers.

The Turnip Truck is a good example of a successful food hub here in Georgia. The Turnip Truck is a distribution and marketing company that connects about 25 sustainable and organic farms with more than 40 restaurants, caterers, and retail operations, primarily in metro Atlanta. Michael Schenck, the founder of the Turnip Truck, has watched his business grow five-fold since it opened in 2008, including 100 percent sales growth over last year.

Food hubs will require smart strategies and new types of collaboration. Take lettuce for example. Georgians eat 285 million pounds of lettuce per year, but we only grow 245,000 pounds of lettuce in the state. Why the disconnect? Is lettuce hard to grow here? No, we can grow lettuce nine months of the year. My only conclusion is that it must not be profitable. Perhaps if we aggregate lettuce from various farms and prepare, package and deliver the lettuce in a more usable form, then buyers will come knocking, especially universities, schools and corporate cafeterias.

The food hub circle

I am excited to be part of the new Sustainable Agriculture Consortium, which was created by the University of Georgia to specifically focus on food hubs over the next five years. Julia Gaskin, Sustainable Agriculture Coordinator at the University of Georgia is leading the charge. The timing is right for this work. In the past six months, the following innovative food hub-type ideas have crossed Georgia Organics’ radar:

  • A food bank distribution center and commercial kitchen that would work to connect producers with food banks, schools, and child care centers in northeast Georgia.
  • A Supermarket Task Force in Georgia examining how to create healthy food options in food deserts and leverage creative financing initiatives to remove barriers.
  • Georgia Organics feasibility study for a pasture poultry mobile processing unit and fixed processing plant for farmers

Some of these efforts are in motion and some are just seeds. But a community based food system will grow from this type of innovation.

Alice Rolls is the Executive Director of Georgia Organics, a member supported, non-profit organization connecting organic food from Georgia farms to Georgia families.  

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