Most people are aware of the fact that local foods are becoming more readily available and that some grocery stores are really committed to buying from local farmers. But what most people don’t think about – unless you’re a local food geek like those of us at ASD – is how that food gets there. Often it is not practical for a farmer to truck his/her product all of the way to a store or a distribution center. If that trip erodes all of their profits, what was the point? And if there are no markets available for their product near their farm, which is often the case in Central Appalachian communities, what is a farmer to do?
Enter the food hub concept. The USDA defines a food hub as, “…a business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail, and institutional demand.” That is what ASD’s Appalachian Harvest has been doing for 16 seasons – long before the term “food hub” had been coined. We have helped small and medium scale farmers in our region earn over $9M in income from this effort. We think that’s pretty cool. But it isn’t really the whole story or where we can have the greatest impact.
What ASD has found is that in the large wholesale market (selling to grocery store chains at the distribution center level) there is almost never enough supply to fill the growing demand. And it isn’t just ASD that sees this issue. It is a challenge across the entire region and even most of the country. So what do we do about that?
This is a complex problem which requires multiple solutions. Obviously, there’s a need for more farmers so we’re working on that problem simultaneously. But something that I find personally very exciting (exposing my inner geek again) is that we have been given the opportunity to work with some awesome partners along with key members of the USDA to think about how we can from WV, OH and KY along with key members from the USDA to work on how to make the entire food system more sustainable. This means working at a regional level to ensure that infrastructure is deployed strategically and does not result in one food hub competing in an unhealthy manner with another and which makes the highest and best use of local focused and conventional distribution infrastructure. It also means creating distribution “corridors” that connect remote communities that could grow food for more urban areas if they could just manage to get it there.
In the coming months we will be working with existing and new partners in WV and OH to connect our food systems at a regional level. Is that uber-local? No. Does that mean we no longer care about developing our local economy? Absolutely not. We believe it takes concurrent efforts on both fronts to create a healthy economy and to ensure that farmers and would-be farmers from across Central Appalachia can become successful. And at this time in Central Appalachia, a bright light of opportunity in the form of a local food system is desperately needed.
So the long and short of it is that addressing the challenges with distribution and strategic implementation of infrastructure to support small and medium farmers in Central Appalachia ultimately results in addressing the issue of supply. Oops. I may have had another Charley Brown Moment.