Do farmers and other suppliers benefit from sales to food hubs? UVM Associate Professor David Conner and a team of researchers set out to find the answer in a recent study published in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition.
Food hubs have been credited as a way to expand markets for local and regional food. However, one crucial area that has not received a great deal of attention is how food hubs are impacting suppliers—notably farmers and small-scale manufacturers.
Associate Professor David Conner
Conner conducted the research with UVM graduate student Hannah Harrington (read our interview with Hannah from 2017), Katherine Sims, formerly of Green Mountain Farm-to -School in Newport, and Richard Berkfield of Food Connects in Brattleboro.
The research presents results from a series of 13 surveys with suppliers of Green Mountain Farm to School and Food Connects. The findings suggest that food hubs are serving a valuable service and providing another market outlet for suppliers. Even though volumes are small, suppliers find hubs to be worthwhile.
“Increasing local food sales can bring a wide array of community development benefits. I think for local food to have a larger benefit to communities, it has to be more available where people shop and eat. It is important to move beyond direct markets to more mainstream outlets, like grocery stores and cafeterias,” Conner says. “Food hubs play a vital role in this. My goal was for food hubs to better understand farmers’ perspectives so that hubs can serve farmers better. I hope the results are applicable and useful not only for the food hubs I worked with but others in the state, region and nation.”
Valuing Food Access, Not Technical Assistance
According to the study, the suppliers value food hubs for their food access and farm viability missions through market and supplier development. However, suppliers are not necessarily looking to food hubs for technical assistance. Instead, many suppliers are getting their technical assistance elsewhere at places such as the Agency of Agriculture, NOFA-VT, UVM Extension, Vermont Farm & Forest Viability Program, and Vermont Farm to Plate, Conner says.
Conner says he hopes the research will affirm the value food hubs provide to farmers and their communities. “It shows how well the hubs keep the name and story of the farm with the food and how valuable that is to all,” he says.
Food Hubs and the Future
Vermont is home to about 20 food hubs, and there are an estimated 400 food hubs around the country. What does Conner think is next for food hubs in Vermont?
“I think they would benefit from growth by adding more farmers and buyers to increase sales volume. Greater volume will allow them to spread fixed costs over more units and take advantage of economies of scale,” he says. “I think there is room for them to do this while still maintaining the personal touch and value of their service. This may imply needing more farmers who are ‘wholesale ready’ and have the volume and reliability to sell to the hubs.”
Learn about UVM’s Food Hub Management Professional Certificate.
Read the complete study in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition.