Food hubs a popular feature at conference

AFP Coorespondent

COLLEGE PARK, Md. (Feb. 3, 2015) — Conference goers packed the room to hear the session on food hubs at the 16th annual Future Harvest, a Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture conference on Jan. 16 at the University of Maryland.
An ever-increasing demand for local foods has led to a number of new distribution models, such as food hubs.
Even traditional produce distributors are looking back to see how to increase their supply of local foods.
The first speaker in the food hub session was William Gray, program assistant at the Wallace Center, part of the Enterprise and Agriculture Group at Winrock International. He presented results of a national survey of more than 100 food hubs across the nation.
In the past 15 years, Gray said, the growth of food hubs has exploded.
Between 2000 and 2014, the number of food hubs in the United States increased from about 50 to 301.
For as many food hubs as there are, Gray said, there are nearly as many different models. And while a food hub’s main function is to distribute food, they are distinct from traditional distributors like Sysco.
“The main difference is that food hubs are mission-driven,” Gray said “They are committed to buying from small to mid-size producers. They have a symbiotic relationship with the community.”
In a majority of the food hubs surveyed, there was a charitable aspect of the business model.
Gray said 75 percent of the food hubs polled said they partner with local food banks.
Alan Moore of Local Food Hub spoke to his experience running a non-profit food hub based in Charlottesville, Va.
They operate out of a 3,500 square foot warehouse and represent 85 growers throughout central Virginia.
Moore said Local Food Hub services 250 sales accounts, which are primarily restaurants and retailers.
“We arose out of a series of meetings with interested buyers,” said Moore.
He explained that restaurants and small retailers wanted to buy local farm products, “but there wasn’t an infrastructure to get things from point a to point b.”
Local Food Hub opened in July 2009 and was generating $85,000 sales after the first six months.
Moore said they saw a 300-percent growth the following year and has been consistently growing between 15 and 35 percent since 2010.
Despite the success, selling fresh products isn’t without challenges.
“Having the right product and the right buyer at the right time is a constant challenge. Seasonality is a challenge. It can be difficult to keep buyers engaged,” Moore said.
While some food hubs will sell directly to the consumer, Local Food Hub strictly sells wholesale.
In addition to the chef and retailer accounts, Moore said his organization partners with larger food distributors and local buying clubs.
Andy Andrews gave an update on the Maryland’s Eastern Shore food hub that has experienced some difficulty in getting started.
“Our mission is to help grow a sustainable, organic farming and food industry on the Delmarva Peninsula,” said Andrews.
“The Mid-Shore is an ideal location for a food hub,” Andrews said noting the ease of transportation and close proximity to a number of major metropolitan areas. “With as much land as we have on the shore, I can’t imagine we’ll have any issue with supply.”
The Eastern Shore food hub will likely take shape as a two separate entities, Andrews said.
One side will be a non-profit that will work with new and beginning farmers and the other as an L3C, a low-profit limited liability company to distribute local products.
There are six public information sessions scheduled for February throughout the Eastern Shore.
Gray said that one of the important things for food hubs to consider is how they will manage growth over time. “How do you avoid creating the same commercial supply chain that we started out to avoid,” he asked.
But at least one major food distributor is hoping to change the perception that big companies can’t work with small and mid-size growers. 
Following the food hub session, Jason Lambros of Coastal Sunbelt Produce spoke about  working with distributors.
He expressed a strong desire to increase supply of local products from the Mid-Atlantic region.
“There’s so much opportunity out there. While I’m proud of what we’ve done, there is so much more we can do,” said Lambros.
Coastal Sunbelt Produce has $250 million dollars in sales annually and employs 900 employees.
They make 2,000 deliveries per day in six states along the east coast but only a fraction of the produce they move comes from the states they service.
Lambros acknowledged that working with a distributor could be intimidating, but he encouraged farmers that most were very flexible and easy to work with.
The most important thing, he said, is to be consistent in your product.
“Distributors don’t like surprises. Scarcity is good,” Lambros said, but erratic or inconsistent supply is not.
Another thing large distributors care about is food safety.
“We have to be honest and realistic — produce has killed people. We can’t have spinach — one of the safest and best things you can put in your body — off the market because of a food scare,” said Lambros.
Certification in Good Agricultural Practices is important, he said — all growers should strive for that — but that it wasn’t necessarily a deal breaker for him to work with a small producer.
“Food safety is important, but not insurmountable. GAP is good and HACCP is good, but it’s all scalable.”