man cutting food in community kitchen

What are Food Hubs and How Can They Help Address Gaps in Healthy Food Access

[Editor’s Note: In our Blue Zones Project and Blue Zones Activate communities, the goal of our Food Environment work is to implement long-term, evidence-backed policies and interventions that optimize environments, increasing access to healthy foods for all. We do this by prioritizing education on how to grow and cook healthy foods, inspiring residents to create healthy food buying habits, making healthy grocery stores or convenience market access easy for everyone, and growing the local food supply. Blue Zones Project and Blue Zones Activate teams approach their food environment goals with their residents and industries in mind, making each Blue Zones Project unique and transformative.]

While food halls featuring chic restaurants and hip artisanal vendors garner plenty of attention and money from consumers these days, people concerned about the future of the country’s foodways, public health, and food insecurity are more focused on the growing number of food hubs instead.

While food halls featuring chic restaurants and hip artisanal vendors garner plenty of attention...people concerned about the future of the country’s foodways & food insecurity are more focused on the growing number of food hubs… Click To Tweet

The National Food Hub Collaboration refined its working definition of a regional food hub to “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.”

There is a wide range of regional and local community food hubs operating in America today – nearly 400 as of the 2017 National Food Hub Survey – with some geared toward wholesale aggregation and distribution, others on increasing access to healthy food, and still others aiming to combat food insecurity.

The reach and impact of food hubs is on the rise, as 82 percent of respondents in the 2019 National Food Hub Survey said demand for their products and services has grown since 2017.

 

Riverside Food Hub

One example of a successful food hub at work is the Riverside Food Hub, a pilot program run by the Riverside Unified School District in Southern California intended to increase community access to fresh produce.

Along with its partners at Riverside University Health System, the district has created a food hub that buys locally grown seasonal fruits and vegetables and sells them to restaurants, child care centers, mini produce markets, hospitals, and schools that do not have access to these fresh fruits and vegetables. The hub, the first produce distribution network ever operated by a school district, also provides nutrition education to students in the region.

Just four years after the Riverside Food Hub first launched in 2017, it had bought more than  $700,000 of produce from 16 local growers, and an additional $300,000 from a local distributor procuring California-grown produce, with nearly $900,000 in sales to 15 local institutions, according to research from the Nutrition Policy Institute. The hub also reduces the environmental impacts of produce transport by buying and distributing produce locally.


Preble Street Food Security Hub

In Portland, Maine, where statewide food insecurity has spiked since the pandemic, the nonprofit social services group Preble Street in 2021 launched its new Food Security Hub, a 30,000-square-foot mixed-use office building with a small cafeteria kitchen. Their aim was to fight food hunger in Maine, create lasting community partnerships, and boost local agriculture and environmental sustainability.

 

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The Preble Street Food Security Hub currently serves 26 towns in Southern Maine and prepares 2,000 hot, nutritious meals a day, distributing them to homeless shelters, health center patients receiving recuperative care, boys’ and girls’ clubs, and more.

The project has already received $12 million in initial funding from several organizations and seeks to raise another $5 million to realize its vision of a collaborative food preparation, production, and distribution site. Project leaders say the additional funding will allow Preble Street to up its production to 10,000 meals a day, as well as increase its freezer and production capacity so it can have 50,000 prepared frozen meals on-hand and available for future emergencies.

 

food hub packers in a line

Community Food Lab

As foodways networks evolve, food systems consultants like the North Carolina-based Community Food Lab have strived to help more communities and regions create effective food hubs of their own.

In 2017, the Community Food Lab developed an official food security plan for Wake County, N.C. When the COVID outbreak started, the well-timed food security report helped the county’s officials identify exactly which organizations needed funding for emergency food relief and to increase supply security.

Community Food Lab designed the Bull City Cool food hub, a shared cold and dry storage warehouse and office space in Durham, N.C., where nonprofit and for-profit groups aggregate and distribute fresh food and flowers from local farmers.

Community Food Lab also worked with Reinvestment Partners in Durham to reimagine a downtown corridor into an urban food hub that would educate residents on sustainable food while boosting economic activity by leasing collaborative food space to non-profits and food businesses.

By building more profitable business operations for small-and medium-scale farmers and providing fresh food for those most in need, food hubs are proving themselves vital to the future health of the nation’s foodways systems. Click To Tweet

Since their inception earlier in the millennium, food hubs have also been considered economic boons to their host regions and communities. According to the USDA’s Regional Food Hub Resource Guide in 2012, a feasibility study conducted in southern Wisconsin estimated that a food hub could create 400 jobs and add $60 million to the local economy, serving up to 50 family farms in the region, possibly doubling their revenues.

By building more profitable business operations for small-and medium-scale farmers and providing fresh food for those most in need, food hubs are proving themselves vital to the future health of the nation’s foodways systems.

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