Chronicling the Rise of a Food Hub Network: Michigan State University Releases Case Study
January 12, 2015 | AJ Hughes
A recently-released case study, published by the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems, chronicles the creation, growth and lessons learned of the two-and-a-half year old Michigan Food Hub Network.
Titled “A Case Study in Building Effective Networks for Food System Change,” the publication tells the story of how and why various food hubs came together to build the Michigan Food Hub Network, according to Rich Pirog, senior associate director of the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems. It was also part of the requirement for the grant funding the network receives.
Pirog describes the food hub network as an “unusual public-private partnership.”
“[The report] is a way to share the model publicly for audiences throughout the United States,” he says. Michigan State University and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development are key participants in the network.
One of the main reasons for the Michigan Food Hub Network was to form a co-op of sorts. Through working together, food hubs across the state have been able to pool their knowledge, expertise and resources. It has been advantageous for participating food hubs to cooperate and learn from one another, according to Pirog. A main task of the network, he says, is to educate people about the work of food hubs.
While many people may have never heard of food hubs, Pirog says there are many misperceptions about what they are and they work they do.
“There is a food hub story in the media every day,” he says. “But often, writers are not really describing food hubs.”
The correct definition of a food hub, says Pirog, is an organization, whether for-profit or nonprofit, that aggregates, distributes and markets locally-sourced food. Contrary to common perception, farmers’ markets are not food hubs, he says. Food hubs are a collaborative effort toward aggregating the accessibility to local food.
“The key is local,” he says. “Food hubs are part of the evolution of the local foods movement.”
Since the network’s inception, participating food hubs have learned both from their successes and shortcomings. Key lessons learned during the past 30 month include:
- Food hub networks need financial, social and intellectual resources.
- A food hub network is most beneficial when its food hubs have access to technical and financial assistance.
- Networks need to customize communication and technical assistance to the needs of each food hub.
- Food hub network leaders should use a servant leadership approach.
- Educators and consultants that serve food hub networks should possess technical, business and facilitation skills.
- Collaboration and collective problem-solving are vital for a healthy food hub community.
- Flexible strategies are needed to adapt to unanticipated needs and challenges.
- Progress should be viewed as an “eco-cycle,” as opposed to a lifecycle.
Pirog says food hubs that have been in business longer are more likely to be viable. Another key to success is having adequate cash flow in order to make improvements, obtain loans and pay off creditors.
The case study also tries to raise awareness of an obstacle that has historically stood in the way of free and just access to good (affordable, healthy, local) food: racism. The report notes that structural racism within the food system in the United States and in Michigan continues to persist, and urges food hub participants to be “intentional about the messy, complicated work of respectfully crossing project, business, and cultural boundaries to connect all the elements of good food in situations that increase good food access.”
Looking forward, Pirog is excited about the future of food hubs. “There’s a lot of buzz about food hubs right now,” he says. “Demand for local foods continues to increase, and conventional distributors are increasingly getting into local foods. There is a place for food hubs, but they’re not the answer to every situation.”