Q&A: Seedstock Panelist Amy McCann on the Future of Food Hubs
September 27, 2015 | Trish Popovitch
Amy McCann is the director and co-founder of the food hub technology firm Local Food Marketplace. The company provides food hubs with systems management and technology. Their goal is to help food hub clients maximize efficiency and deliver a consistent, quality product. With almost 90 food hub clients across the U.S. and Canada, McCann is in a unique position to assess the food hub movement.
McCann will speak at Seedstock’s Innovation and the Rise of Local Food conference in November. Seedstock caught up with her before the conference for a quick preview of her thoughts on the future of food hubs.
Seedstock: Localized food aggregation has gained momentum in the last few years. What have been the benefits to local economies?
McCann: There is the community building that comes with food hubs; they bring people together, and they get people to talk to each other. They help on the employment side of things and revitalizing neighborhoods. They are great at encouraging entrepreneurship in communities. Because food hubs exist, more people can take the chance on being producers.
Seedstock: How would you describe the current state of the food hub movement?
McCann: I think that it is in a transformation process right now. A couple of years ago you were hearing a lot about food hubs being created. I think new entrants are slowing down, but those that are in the market are figuring out how to be sustainable financially. They are maturing as businesses: figuring out how they can be profitable, how to better source their producers and meet their missions. I think overall sales across all food hubs are increasing dramatically.
Seedstock: How would you assess general public awareness of the food hub model?
McCann: When you see town and city governments funding studies on food hubs and how they can support the farms in their regions, that suggests to me it’s becoming more mainstream. That said, I think your average consumer still doesn’t know what a food hub is. I think they are noticing they can get a lot more local products at their grocery stores or online or in restaurants.
Seedstock: In general what’s working in the food hub model? What needs to be changed or improved?
McCann: I think the thing that makes food hubs different is that there isn’t a single model that you can use; there’s no cookie-cutter. It’s based on the assets that are already in place in the region. The food hubs that are working have found their niches and are owning those niches. I think nearly all food hubs have challenges with supply. I think for food hubs to advance fundamentally, the supply issue has to be addressed.
Seedstock: What about vendor relationships with food hubs? Are growers and producers finding favor with the model?
McCann: I think it depends on the producer. That’s where a food hub needs to be clear on the services it provides. Doing a good job of laying out how the food hub can help a producer be more economically viable is an essential piece of what a food hub needs to do to be successful. I think producers that see the value are getting tremendous value out of their food hub relationships.
Seedstock: Are food hubs replacing farmers’ markets or working in conjunction with them?
McCann: I don’t think its food hubs that are replacing farmers’ markets. I think that there is perhaps an overpopulation of farmers’ market. Those producers that were at those farmers’ markets that weren’t so successful need to find a way to diversify their sales, and they see food hubs as an excellent way to do that.
Seedstock: Which is more successful/preferable, a for-profit or nonprofit food hub model?
McCann: I think that regardless of whether you are for-profit or nonprofit it needs to be managed in such a way that the food hub is aiming to be financially sustainable. That might come in a variety of different ways. The key is that there is knowledge within the hub of how aggregation and distribution happen. There must also be a level of professionalism that recognizes the food hub is playing in a bigger competitive space than just local food.
Seedstock: Since our last interview, how has Local Food Marketplace progressed?
McCann: This last year our focus was on production planning. This has helped our customers plan their supply for the year. We felt the local food system was being challenged hugely by the supply issue. So far it seems like things are going well. It’s helping them look more critically at who they’re serving, the producers they are using and making sure they have products to maximize their potential sales.
Seedstock: What’s next for Local Foods Marketplace’s technology?
McCann: We’ve been focusing on a couple of different things. One is our user interface; we’re doing a major update to that as well some rigorous inventory management and other features that will help our customers support the Food Safety Modernization Act.
Seedstock: What do you hope folks will take away from your Seedstock conference presentation?
McCann: I hope that folks who are running food hubs or folks that are thinking about starting a food hub realize that they can’t just adopt a model they see somebody else using. They’ll probably have to adopt different aspects of many different models for their particular region. From a food technology standpoint, they should be aiming for something that’s very flexible because they may find themselves needing to add different channels or adopt different practices as they grow.