Food system experts in Michigan wanted to offer a comprehensive food hub management program without reinventing the wheel.
So they turned to UVM.
UVM’s Food Hub Management Professional Certificate Program is heading to Michigan in 2019 as part of a new partnership between the University, Kalamazoo Valley Community College, and the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems.
The food hub certificate, the first of its kind in the United States, launched at UVM five years ago. The program offers an innovative blend of hands-on, community-based, online and in-person learning designed to prepare students for managing food hubs.
While the program will return to Vermont in 2020, moving it to Michigan this year aligns with UVM’s original hope of taking the program on the road.
From Vermont to Michigan
In the early years of the UVM program, a cohort from Michigan traveled to Vermont to complete the certificate, thanks to scholarship funding provided by the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems. Last year, members of that same Michigan cohort approached UVM Food Hub Management program faculty director Ann Karlen about moving the program to Michigan for a year. She readily agreed.
“There’s a lot of food hub activity in Michigan, so it made sense,” says Karlen, a food systems consultant and the director of Fair Food in Philadelphia from 2000-2017. “During the planning stage of the UVM program, we had talked about moving it around to different parts of the country to promote geographical diversity within the cohort and explore local and regional food systems beyond Vermont. It’s great to see that goal become a reality.”
The Future of Food Hubs
Food hubs are businesses that actively manage the aggregation and distribution of source-identified food products. In 2017, there were more than 400 food hubs across the country.
Nearly a decade ago, food hubs were a brand new concept. Now, the food hub sector is more established, and ultimately more business-minded and competitive.
Noel Bielaczyc, who completed the UVM Food Hub Management program in 2016 and was one of the students who approached Karlen about offering the program in Michigan, is the value chain specialist at the Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University. He says business management skills are more important than ever for food hub managers.”
“Produce distribution and protein distribution are extremely competitive and difficult businesses to succeed in,” he says. “Even if a food hub is grant supported, it still needs a certain level of operational efficiency and financial acumen to survive. There is such a steep learning curve to food hub management, and through the UVM program, we want to give people the tools to succeed.”
A few years ago there was more public and private funding to start and sustain food hubs, but that’s no longer the case, Bielaczyc adds.
According to a 2017 survey by Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems and The Wallace Center at Winrock International,64 percent of hubs reported being able to carry out their core functions without grant funding, but 36 percent of food hubs reported being highly dependent on grants.
“The amount of public funding is smaller, so food hub managers need to look at becoming more self-reliant and have their business revenue support operations,” Bielaczyc says. “Food hubs also have to be a little more creative with finding funding.”
Other challenges that food hubs face include rising labor costs, balancing supply and demand consistently, and determining future growth. But food hubs are also making their mark by creating jobs and demonstrating financial viability.
In fact, food hubs are becoming more profitable over time. And while the formation of new hubs may be slowing, existing food hubs are showing longevity. In 2017, 53 percent of food hubs were still in operation after six years, compared to 38 percent in 2013, according to the MSU and Wallace Center survey.
An Evolving Food Hub Program
Just as food hub managers have had to adjust how they operate, Karlen has also changed some of the UVM program’s curriculum. Since Karlen began teaching the program five years ago, she’s tweaked certain online modules based on student feedback. While the program focuses on food hub management, it also addresses social issues in the food system.
“We took a nuts and bolts approach when planning the food hub program’s curriculum. We stayed away from social and cultural issues to focus on key management skills,” Karlen says. “But we learned quickly that students want to talk about the pressing social justice issues in the food system, and how they can be addressed by food hubs. So, now we also have a mission-related piece in the program.”
Residential session dates for the 2019 UVM Food Hub Professional Certificate will take place in Kalamazoo, Michigan on March 4-8 and Nov. 4-8.
Moving the program to Kalamazoo Valley Community College provides ample opportunity for hands-on training. Kalamazoo Valley’s Food Innovation Center is home to ValleyHUB, a food hub that specializes in providing fresh-cut produce to institutional customers like hospitals. ValleyHUB serves as a living laboratory for students in the college’s culinary arts and food systems programs. Rachel Bair, Director for Sustainable Food Systems at Kalamazoo Valley, and Randall Davis, ValleyHUB Manager, both attended the UVM program and encouraged Karlen to bring it to Michigan.
“It’s unique to have a food hub housed within an educational institution,” says Bair of ValleyHUB. “We are excited to combine the strong existing curriculum with direct experience that will bring it immediately to life.”
The residential portion of the program will also include tours of other food hubs in lower Michigan.
“This program is designed for folks who are already working in a food hub and want to advance in their career, but it’s also ideal for someone working in another area of the food system who wants to make a career shift because it teaches management skills in a very practical way,” Karlen says. “The majority of the program’s modules are taught by experienced practitioners, which is one of the things I’m most proud of about this program.”