How exactly food hubs contribute to the local economy is a question UVM graduate student Hannah Harrington ’15 is hoping to answer in her research.
Vermont is home to about 20 food hubs, and there are an estimated 400 food hubs around the country. By definition, a food hub is 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. A food hub can include businesses that perform all or a range of these services.
While food hubs are a relatively new concept, some food hubs in Vermont have been around for a decade. We talked to Hannah, who graduated from UVM with a degree in Community and International Development, about how food hubs are making their mark on the Vermont economy.
You’re working with UVM Professor David Connor on studying the economic impact of food hubs and institutions. Can you explain how your research is measuring the economic impact?
These numbers are not simply how much food they are buying from local farms and selling to retailers, restaurants, or institutions. Instead, because these organizations are mission driven, they have goals that go beyond selling local food—such as growing the market for local farmers, educating consumers on the importance of buying local, and building community. The records detail where these Vermont hubs are spending their money, much of which goes to other Vermont businesses in other sectors.
How many food hubs are included in your research?
We have worked with five food hubs to collect financial records that will help determine economic impact. Our study specifically focused on food hubs that aggregate and distribute local food.
Why is this research so valuable?
This is important because we can show what sectors of the Vermont economy are boosted by food hubs. In many cases, these food hubs employ Vermont workers, purchase inputs from Vermont businesses, and pay rent and utilities to Vermont companies. Acknowledging and measuring these business practices can help better understand the business model and the role it holds in our state economy.
What have you found most surprising about food hubs in your research?
The amount of work they do. Food hubs are incredibly comprehensive, strategic, adaptive businesses that focus on each element in the supply chain—the producer, the distributor, the retailer, the consumer, etc.—and work to help make that entity a stronger presence in the local food system. They do all of this while building community around food and maintain the strong agricultural heritage of our state.
It is also interesting to look at the national numbers from the National Food Hub Survey completed in 2013 and 2015. You see a majority of hubs that are very young, with the majority under five years old. This trend is not reflected in Vermont, where almost all of the hubs we studied were over five years old.
Do you have a sense of the future of food hubs, or how they will need to evolve over the next 5-10 years?
I am addressing this question in my master’s thesis. There is talk about how food hubs will have to change or adapt in the future. Scaling up is one of the topics being discussed—how can food hubs service more farms and more consumers while maintaining the attention to detail that has become a part of their business model? It is an ever-changing field with many threats and many opportunities. I believe that we will continue to see local food sold in more and more locations around the state—perhaps in more grocery stores and brick-and-mortar establishments.
Could you talk about some of those threats and opportunities?
Food hubs are reliant on a steady source of good quality local produce from farmers and consistent buying from buyers. This means they have similar threats as the farmers—good growing seasons, climate change, and food safety legislation, for example. The food hub also shares the threats that their buyers face, such as customer interest in and knowledge of local foods, competition in the market, as well as legislation on school and institutional budget and purchasing. However, there is opportunity for the hub to be a spokesperson for both parties and lobby for change that will benefit their producers and their buyers.
You studied sustainable food systems in the UVM Oaxaca Semester Abroad program as an undergraduate. How did studying in Mexico change or enhance your understanding of food systems, both in Mexico and here at home?
My time in the UVM Oaxaca program was pure magic. I was exposed to a lot of food that I had never tasted, seen, or even heard of! This period helped me develop the understanding between food and culture, something that has been dissipating in the United States, but Vermont is still holding onto. We studied many parts of the supply chain—small farms that supplied locally, large producers that shipped globally, markets of all shapes and sizes, restaurants, and food stands. This spiked my curiosity to understand why our food systems look so different.
You grew up in Dorset, Vermont. Were you always interested in local food?
At a young age, I fell in love with the art of cooking, which led to a deep appreciation for good food and good ingredients. During my undergraduate years, my academic interest in community development coupled with my personal values in food and health led me to a project that examined farm-to-school programming. This was my first academic look into the food system. I like to say farm-to-school was my “first love” when it comes to research. That project introduced me to the food systems field. It was my first glimpse at a real-life project that took a multidisciplinary approach to problem solving, and it inspired my pursuit of a degree that would allow me to help develop this type of programming.
Learn about the UVM Food Hub Management Professional Certificate Program.