Food fads come and go, but consumers continue to embrace local products in the supermarket and on restaurant menus. However, sourcing from small, local farms can pose challenges for retailers who need a guaranteed steady supply of high-quality product.
Foods hubs are one way that some supermarkets are working around the challenges of sourcing from individual small farms, according to a new report by the Wallace Center at Winrock International — a nonprofit organization based in Arlington, Va., that aims to create a more sustainable, regional food supply.
While these food hubs vary in format and size, they typically aggregate small and medium-sized farms in a particular region, providing services like management of supply chain logistics, as well as marketing and food safety information.
“Food hubs are filling a gap, and they’ve come about because they saw that gap in the system between the small farmers supply and the larger market demand,” John Fisk, director of the Wallace Center, told SN.
The report “Food Hubs: Solving Local” profiles case studies between retailers and established food hubs, including the partnership between the 150-farm food hub Good Natured Family Farms and Ball’s Food Stores, the Kansas City, Kan.-based operator of Hen House Supermarkets.
Ball’s and Good Natured Family Farms have worked together on formalizing the product delivery process. After Ball’s started buy more product from the food hub, Ball’s leased space in its distribution center to Good Natured Family Farms, which also supplies Sysco in Kansas City as well as restaurants, farmers’ markets and other corporations from the warehouse.
The local products from the food hub are popular at Ball’s, long known as a champion for local foods.
“We always had local product, we always sold local product, but not under one banner. So we took this ‘Buy Fresh, Buy Local’ [branding] that became our banner, that became our ad concept,” said Bill Esch, executive director of marketing and advertising at Ball’s.
Local growers and producers from the food hub regularly come in to stores for Meet the Farmer events. Last year, the retailer began offering a Community Supported Agriculture program from Good Natured Family Farms for customers. For $25 weekly, customers receive a seasonal assortment of produce, meat and dairy items.
In the fall, Ball’s lets the farmers know what supplies they need the following year, so the farmers are guaranteed sales.
Bob Heuer, one of the authors of the report, said food hubs are helping to preserve 200 to 2,000 acres medium-sized farms that industry observers said were disappearing.
“It’s allowing some of the farmers to change their production plans,” Heuer said.
The report also highlights large retailers that have been working with food hubs. Cherry Capital Farms, a food hub that includes 150 small farms, supplies 60 Kroger stores in Michigan.
Read more: Promoting organics boosts sales at Ball's
“Cherry Capital has been the backbone of our Michigan product engagement initiative, and instrumental in supporting our stores and go-to-market processes. They’ve done far more to place product in our stores beyond traditional brokerages and delivery operations,” Kroger spokesperson Dale Hollandsworth said in the report.
As food hubs are all organized differently, the Wallace Center’s Fisk warns that there will likely be a learning curve for both the retailer and the food hub when they start a partnership.
“The food hub concept is getting its legs, and like any sector it’s sorting itself on developing models that work both financially and work to build the social and economic and environmental outcomes that folks are looking for,” said Fisk.
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