Tom McDougall is the founder of 4P Foods, a D.C.-based food hub that sources from environmentally responsible family farmers and works to reconnect the community with their local foodshed.
“Why are local and regional foods the ‘alternative’ instead of a mainstay of food systems in this country?”
Philip Ackerman-Leist poses this question in the preface of his book, Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable, and Secure Food Systems. He goes on to say that, in order to find the answer, “…as with most agricultural endeavors, it takes a little digging to get started.”
Today’s food system, according to estimates by the Kellogg Foundation, provides consumers with roughly 2 percent of their food from local and sustainable sources. The other 98 percent comes from a globalized industrial agricultural system, which is fantastically efficient at producing “cheap” food. However, in terms of human and environmental capital, the true cost of food is astronomically higher than the price tags we see in the supermarket. It is time to rethink the fundamentals of our system.
The good news is that system-wide changes are already happening. Around the country, individuals, communities, businesses, and governments are realizing this is not only an urgent problem but also a tremendous opportunity to strengthen communities and heal our planet. Everywhere we look, we are seeing innovative, sustainable, and profitable food systems being built on the principles of equity and inclusion.
We see rooftop farms and community gardens. We see Co-Ops, Benefit Corporations, and food hubs. We see a demand for local, transparent, ethically produced food that is outstripping the supply. We begin to see the mosaic of a sustainable, regenerative food system of tomorrow.
Food hubs, in particular, are a vital component in the burgeoning ecosystem of sustainable, ethical producers. While the USDA defines a food hub simply as a business (or organization) that “aggregates, stores, markets, and distributes, source-identified local food,” food hubs do much much more.
As small and mid-scale farmers continue to find creative ways to access markets, food hubs often assist with everything from GAP Certification, to crop planning, pricing strategy, food safety trainings, networking and mentoring, access to capital, and marketing support. Food hubs not only open new market opportunities for the farmers they work with, but they can also help catalyze the shift away from industrialized mono-cropping and back towards a diversified operation, yielding greater environmental resiliency and often more profits to the farming operation. While many of the food hubs around the country are young, the role they are playing in connecting and empowering sustainable farms cannot be understated. In less than a decade, more than 400 food hubs across the country have launched, aggregating from over 28,000 small and mid-size farmers.
The key to success for the various food hub models lies in the fact that there is no “one size fits all” food hub. What works in Bangor, Maine may not work in Charlottesville, Virginia or Jackson, Mississippi. As one of my fellow food hub nerds accurately describes the food hub model, “If you’ve seen one food hub… you’ve seen one food hub.” The ability for food hubs to listen to their stakeholders and build their models based on the needs of their farmers and their communities has led to tremendous growth in the size, scope, number, and impact of food hubs.
With the growth of these aggregator models, we are reaching a tipping point. Now that there are more than 400 food hubs around the country, we have the beginnings of the physical infrastructure needed to support a new, alternative supply chain that sources exclusively from regional, sustainable producers with technology-enabled transparency every step of the way – once again putting a face and a voice to our food. As food hubs scale, the next generation is emerging: food ports. These aggregate the smaller regional hubs and include processing, production, and distribution functions so that good, small, and mid-scale food can finally make its way into the institutional and large wholesale supply chains.
Increasingly and encouragingly, schools, hospitals, universities, commercial campuses, and the food service giants that contract with all of them are being pushed to procure more transparent, local and regional foods. Good food should be a right, not a privilege. By developing the technical and physical infrastructure to connect these food hubs, and open the channels such that good, sustainable food is the norm – not the exception – we can not only support sustainable, regional agriculture, but we can also provide healthy food to systems and communities that are currently under-served by our industrialized system.
And of course, no one could do this alone. Food hubs, food ports, advances in infrastructure, investments in technology, and collaboration across sectors are but a few of the innovations that will ultimately build more resilient, sustainable, and equitable food systems that not only can sustain agriculture and the communities it supports, but work to regenerate and heal some of the damage that has been done. It takes an entire ecosystem of unique partners and models to make that possible because no size fits all.