How Food Hubs Connect and Strengthen Rural Communities

An alternative approach to local food is taking off from Washington to Wisconsin.

Sandra Strieby February 2, 2023

When COVID-19 hit, Casey Smith’s farm “lost all of our restaurant business, which at the time was a significant portion of our sales,” he says. Smith, a fifth-generation farmer, grew up in the valley. He honed his business skills in 4-H, for a time joined the U.S. Junior National Biathlon Team, and now runs BCS Livestock in North Central Washington’s Methow Valley with his wife and parents.

To compensate for the loss of restaurant sales, Smith set up an online store and began selling lamb and beef directly to consumers, distributing once a week “out of a cooler in the back of a pickup in a parking lot.”  That distribution model—outdoors for virus safety, but allowing direct interaction—worked well, and BCS added milk and sourdough bread supplied by other local producers to attract more customers.

The added offerings “seemed to go over well with customers,” Smith says, so in 2021 BCS reached out to other producers “to try and offer as many local food products as we could.” This was the beginning of the Methow Valley FoodShed.

The FoodShed has operated for two years, and worked with about 20 producers in 2022; the number of farmers and the products on offer at any given time shift with the seasons. “Adding more products has helped increase sales of all of our products,” Smith says.

The FoodShed now uses rented cooler and freezer space to assemble orders. Customers still order online, and can pick up food at one of two locations. The FoodShed’s fee—15% of sales—is considerably less than a grocery store’s 40% markup. Smith says, “We are able to do this because we don’t have a brick-and-mortar storefront and we don’t have to manage physical inventory.”

The Food Hub Model

The FoodShed joins a growing wave of food hubs: a diverse array of organizations that aggregate, market and distribute local food to commercial, retail, institutional and/or individual buyers. The food hub model has been gaining momentum since the 1990s and has blossomed in the last decade and a half in response to growing interest in local food. The USDA has taken a strong interest in hubs as a way to support and stabilize local food systems, issuing several relevant publications, offering technical assistance and grants, and maintaining an online food-hub directory.

Numbering in the hundreds, U. S. food hubs are less common than farmers markets, on-farm markets or community-supported agriculture operations (CSAs), and fill a different niche. More than half are located in low-income areas whose residents have limited access to food, and many engage with and invest in their communities to better meet local needs.

Hubs benefit both food producers and buyers: handling marketing and distribution can spread small growers thin, while buying separately from multiple farms may be impractical for grocery chains and service-sector customers like schools and hospitals. By taking on logistical and administrative tasks, food hubs free farmers to focus on what they do best and make it easy for buyers to fill their own needs. They also provide a market for local products, supporting rural and small-town economies and responding to consumer interest in fresh regional foods.

The Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative

Eighteen hundred miles away from the FoodShed, the Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative (WFHC) offers similar services on a much larger scale, supplying locally-grown food to the retail and service sectors. In 2011, Dane County, Wis., sponsored a food-hub feasibility study, and the results were promising. The idea languished, though, until local farmer Tim Zander approached the Wisconsin Farmers Union (WFU) about taking action. The WFU provided facilitation and staff support, and engaged a core group of farmers to discuss possibilities and craft an initial approach.

With start-up funds from the WFU, the WFHC incorporated late in 2012. The cooperative launched with seven experienced mid-size farmers, hired a salesperson and recruited two solid customers, Roundy’s (now Kroger) and Sysco.

The WFHC’s start-up model worked well for several years, says Tara Roberts-Turner of Turner’s Fresh Market and Greenhouse, one of the cooperative’s initial members and now the hub’s general manager. Roberts-Turner, who has taught sustainability at the high school and college levels, was a panelist at last year’s White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, the first of its kind since 1969. 

The downside of those early days, she says, was that smaller farms were left behind since the cooperative couldn’t afford to pick up small loads.

A decade later, the WFHC has 52 members from two dozen counties, a warehouse, a transport arm, and a full roster of commercial and service-sector accounts. With that infrastructure in place, the cooperative has begun offering services to smaller growers.

During the pandemic, the cooperative focused on building new community partnerships that address food insecurity. For example, the hub is distributing food boxes to family day care homes (small home-based child care centers, eligible for USDA support if they serve low-income families) throughout Wisconsin as part of a program to support early-childhood nutrition. Funding from a new federal food-promotion grant is helping the WFHC to build on and expand such partnerships. Grant funding has been important to the WFHC from its inception, and has come from a variety of federal, state and local sources. Nationwide, about a third of food hubs rely on grants.

In addition to benefiting from marketing and distribution support, producers are able to earn more for the food they sell. Access to wholesale markets has been particularly advantageous for WFHC members. Most members sell through other outlets, as well—for instance, at farmers markets, to processors, to restaurants or straight from the farm. Sales through the cooperative are “just one piece of the puzzle,” according to Roberts-Turner, but those sales have helped farmers scale up and increase profit.

Helping the Community

Both Roberts-Turner and Smith argue that food hubs benefit the broader community, as well. Customers get easier access to fresh, nutritious food. Hubs provide jobs: The WFHC employs eight drivers and an additional two part-time and two full-time staff members, while the FoodShed’s part-time employee “will be increasing to about 20 hours a week as we work to expand our procurement, sales and distribution region,” says Smith. By supporting local production, Roberts-Turner says, food hubs improve prospects for the next generation of farmers. That translates to more choices for young people who may want to stay in the area, as well as support for farmland preservation and the local agricultural economy, two of the initial drivers of Dane County’s food hub feasibility study.

Smith believes the FoodShed is helping to keep small-scale agriculture viable in the face of the many challenges facing family farms.  

“Currently our food system in the U.S. is very fragile,” he says. “Diversity creates strength and resilience, so hopefully we can provide some diversity to the food system.” 

Sandra Strieby

Sandra Strieby is a freelance writer in north central Washington. She studied fruit science at Cal Poly State University and landscape architecture at the University of Washington, and has worked for decades as a land-use and natural resource planner, primarily in rural communities.

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