Iowa Food Hub Makes Choosing Local Food Easy for Consumers
June 11, 2014 | Marianne Peters
It’s getting easier to buy food grown in northeast Iowa, thanks to a regional food hub,.
For small to mid-sized farming operations, associating with a regional food hub can mean selling more crops, reaching more markets, and earning more money to reinvest in the farm. Associating with a food hub also means that more food can be distributed to markets nearby, a boon for the regional economy. Food hubs help farmers aggregate, market, and distribute their goods, jobs that growers may not have time or money to do themselves.
Nick McCann, a business specialist for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, serves as a technical advisor to the Iowa Food Hub, headquartered in Decorah, Iowa in the northeast corner of the state. The Food Hub is sponsored by Allamakee New Beginnings, a nonprofit working to reduce poverty in northeast Iowa. The Food Hub itself is a for-profit enterprise, supported by the sales of its products.
McCann works with the Food Hub producers and processors to identify new markets for their goods. Once he’s found a new market, he identifies the right farm or product for that market and helps establish a link. Most of the producers find the Food Hub through word of mouth, McCann says. They are asked to conform to certain practices in food safety and production, though the producers vary in their approach to sustainable practices.
The Iowa Food Hub has established relationships with consumers, retailers, schools, and institutions in a six-county area–markets that its producers would never have been exposed to without the resources of the Food Hub.
“Farmers are expected to grow, process, and market their crops,” says McCann. “It’s hard to do all three, and people get burned out. Through the Food Hub we can create those market linkages and aggregate and centralize some of the processes.”
Linking local producers to local consumers is the idea behind the food hub concept. For many people, local food is only available through a seasonal farmers’ market. Some areas, labeled “food deserts,” have no grocery stores and little opportunity to eat fresh or local food at all. For a majority of the population, people still eat food that has mostly been imported from other places.
“Local food is not that accessible,” says McCann. “We want to make the local choice the easy choice. We’re always asking, ‘How do we create an environment where it’s easier to get and use local food?'”
For example, McCann worked with a school to develop menus that still complied with state diet and health regulations, but that also incorporated food that was produced regionally and delivered right to their door.
McCann has also worked with the Iowa Food Hub to develop a food box program. In some ways, it resembles a CSA: members sign up to receive weekly food deliveries that consist of seasonal produce, meat, bread, eggs, and milk. The content of the boxes can vary depending on the member’s needs or preferences. Unlike a CSA, however, the boxes are delivered to members’ workplaces. Members get a convenient delivery of fresh food, and farmers are able to sell their products at a fair price.
The food hub concept is spreading, which pleases Nick McCann.
“Food hubs can be viable, but it takes time and resources to develop them,” he says. “There’s always a lot of pressure to build buildings and buy trucks.”
Rather than sink a lot of money into storage and equipment, he advises, rent for a while. The Iowa Food Hub is continuing to grow, reaching out to new markets and making local food accessible to more people in northeast Iowa.