Can the Local Food Movement Scale Up to Meet the Demand of Hospitals and Other Big Purchasers?
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Advocates for so-called food hubs hope that they can; they aim to combine the social and environmental values of alternative food movements with industrial values of efficiency and convenience. According to the US Department of Agriculture’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, a food hub is a business or organization that manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified food from local and regional producers to help them meet wholesale, retail and institutional demand. The middlemen and infrastructure that could have satisfied this role have largely been lost in recent decades because of corporate concentration, leaving an increasingly bifurcated system that favors small-scale direct markets and large-scale commodity markets.
While over 170 food hubs have emerged across the country, broadline distributors are also responding to increased demand for local products. With a solid hold on the healthcare market, these companies offer hospitals a way to achieve their goals with the utmost convenience—just look for the ”local” symbol in the online ordering catalog. While many hospitals applaud these new options, some point to concerns about the looseness of the term local. Distributors like US Foods have marked products like Doritos and Pepsi-Cola as local because they come from nearby processing plants. A fascination with food miles is the thinnest reading of the term, glossing over production methods and ownership structures for a rote counting of distance on a map. St. Joe’s interest in Richard Andres’s green beans is not simply that they come from twenty-nine miles away but that they are grown by an independent family farmer who practices environmentally responsible agricultural methods.
Food hubs, because of their supply chain transparency and values-based missions, can ensure that institutional purchasers are getting the sort of local food they’re aiming for. That’s why St. Joe’s is doing anything they can to help the nascent Washtenaw Food Hub in their region get off the ground.
However, guaranteeing that the green beans come in the door ready to rock and roll remains a challenge for many food hubs, both because processing equipment and distribution infrastructure are costly, and because their leadership can be long on vision and short on business savvy. Michigan advocates would do well to talk to their neighbors across the Great Lakes. The failure of the Producers & Buyers Cooperative in Wisconsin serves as a cautionary tale. The food hub attempted to ride on enthusiasm and trust between its members but soon ran up against stark business realities including lack of sufficient capital and management expertise and the need for a broader set of buyers secured with binding contracts. Two hours south along Highway 53, the Fifth Season Cooperative is successfully serving hospital and college clients by partnering with broadline distributor Reinhart FoodService. The alliance captures the best of both worlds, ensuring transparency related to social and environmental values on one hand and providing infrastructure, efficiency and expertise on the other.
Creating a new food hub may not always be the answer. Much like family farmers, small independent distributors are disappearing from the food system. Hospitals keen on supporting their local economy should beware they don’t favor new hubs at the expense of these companies. With a mixture of prodding and support, some hospitals are finding that local distributors can act as food hubs themselves by strengthening ties with family farmers and increasing the transparency in their supply chain from farm to hospital.
If efforts like St. Joe’s thrive, hospitals and their fellow institutional purchasers will play a major role in moving the local food movement beyond farmers’ markets to engage more farmers, acres and eaters. But the leap in scale from an individual’s buying three onions at a farmers’ market to a hospital’s buying 300 cases of local onions is not simply one of numbers; it presents a different game entirely. “Middlemen” is still a dirty word in some local-food circles, but if the movement hopes to expand beyond boutique status, it will need to embrace it. The real innovation will be developing that missing middle ground in a way that honors a comprehensive range of social, environmental and economic values.