As demand increases for locally grown products, food centers or hubs are thriving, based on a recent survey coordinated by the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems in East Lansing along with the Wallace Center at Winrock International in Arlington, Va.
Of the hubs that participated in the 2013 National Food Hub Survey — the largest national survey of food hubs to date — 95 percent reported an increase in demand for their products and services. The hubs actively manage the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of local and regional food products.
There are approximately 220 hubs in the United States, five of which are located in Michigan, including Detroit’s Eastern Market and Harvest Michigan in Clarkston. Several others are in the planning or discussion stage, says Rich Pirog, senior associate director of the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems and co-convener of the Michigan Food Hub Network.
“More markets — such as restaurants, K-12 schools, and small grocery stores — are requesting local food in larger volumes than individual small and mid-size farmers can individually supply,” he says, noting that food hubs better help connect the products of local farmers to area buyers. “Food hubs are part of the evolution of the local food movement. They are playing a role in getting more ‘source-identified’ food out to a demanding public.”
Based on the survey’s results, the average food hub worked with 80 producers (most small or mid-sized), had 19 paid employees, and had sales in 2012 that exceeded $3.7 million. A majority of hubs (66 percent) operate without grant funding, and the more years they are in business, the more likely they are to be profitable.
The survey also found that the majority of food hubs were located in or near metropolitan areas, suggesting reliance on a nearby highly populated center for customers. In urban and rural communities alike, food hubs help supply underserved market areas that “for example, may not have a readily available supply of healthy foods such as fresh produce,” Pirog says.
If anything, the challenges faced by most food hubs involve growth management and balancing supply and demand. As one survey taker noted, “We are now in a situation of decided how much more to grow, not because of supply or demand, which we have plenty of both, but because of time, inclination, processes/systems, etc.”
Which is where local food hub consultants like Cary Junior, who works with Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne counties, come in. As a consultant through the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems, Junior does ground research, identifying where hubs are, who’s interested in doing hub work, what kind of help they need, etc.
Junior is working with a group of farmers who want to market their products in metro Detroit and is on the lookout for restaurants that might want to work with them.
“We have different people out there doing different things,” Junior says. “Some people are doing production, others are doing distribution. But people aren’t aware of who’s doing what.
“I’m trying to tie the knot together.”
Junior says that there’s “no question” that the food hub industry will continue to grow, referencing the Michigan Good Food Charter — which plans to see Michigan institutions source 20 percent of their food products from Michigan growers, producers, and processors by 2020 — as one of the reasons why.
“Hopefully by 2020, we’ll have enough hubs set up to help meet that goal,” he says.