North Valley Food Hub Connects Local Buyers, Growers
Editor’s note: The following is based on a program session at the campus’ ninth annual This Way to Sustainability Conference, held March 6–8. Themed “Growing Toward a Sustainable Future,” the student-run conference attracted a record 1,658 attendees for three days of presentations and programs exploring what is possible in sustainability.
Regional food hubs, which link food producers to new markets, are catching on throughout the United States. While there are different models for food hubs, generally they are centrally located facilities with a business management structure that facilitates the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution, and/or marketing of locally or regionally produced food products.
“The opportunity with food hubs is to increase the profitability and resiliency of local agricultural producers while also meeting increased demand from consumers for source-identified, local food,” said Jacob Brimlow, a CSU, Chico agriculture professor.
The 2013 National Food Hub Survey found that 62 percent of food hubs began operations within the last five years, 31 percent of food hubs had $1 million or more in annual revenue, and the majority of food hubs were supporting their businesses with little or no grant assistance—including food hubs that identified as nonprofits.
One such food hub is in its fledgling stages here in the North State. In their presentation for the This Way to Sustainability Conference, Brimlow and Noelle Ferdon, director of local food systems for the Northern California Regional Land Trust (NCRLT), gave an overview of the North Valley Food Hub (both are CSU, Chico graduates).
Currently in its pilot phase, the North Valley Food Hub is an online marketplace with goals of expanding existing local food markets and creating new opportunities for food buyers and growers in the tri-county area of Butte, Glenn, and Tehama. It is designed to connect local growers with local wholesale buyers like grocery retailers, schools, hospitals, and restaurants. The idea behind the online model is to reduce transaction costs significantly and increase opportunities for regional institutions to provide their consumers with safe, good food, according to Brimlow. Potential benefits include the following: buyers will be able to purchase from multiple growers through one order; both buyers and growers can overcome the challenges of delivery/transportation, food safety, and marketing that currently limit local food sales; and growers can combine their products to meet the demand of larger volume buyers.
Some of the steps the North Valley Food Hub is taking to open for sales include acquiring permits and ensuring they have the most up-to-date food safety standards, said Ferdon. The FDA’s 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act is requiring increased food safety practices by food hubs and their producers. “The FSMA is the most significant overhaul of United States food safety policy in decades,” said Brimlow.
In September 2013, the College of Agriculture and NCRLT, with support from the Department of Nutrition and Food Science and in collaboration with the Center for Nutrition and Activity Promotion, began a two-year research project sponsored by the USDA. Called “Marketing Food Safety,” the project, directed by Brimlow, seeks to expand capacity to support local food system development in rural Northern California.
Among the preliminary findings of a comprehensive survey studying potential barriers to growers are that 51 percent of local farmers surveyed had completed a food safety course, 54 percent feel that a food safety plan is necessary for their business, and 16 percent have written a food safety plan. Some of the most important barriers that growers listed include that the local market is too large for small buyers, too small for large buyers, and finding local buyers can be too time consuming. Cold and dry storage poses another important barrier, as well as finding enough labor, and laws and regulations that can make this model too difficult or expensive to pursue.
The North Valley Food Hub, found at www.northvalleyfoodhub.com, is slated to be up and running up by the end of the year.
—Marion Harmon, Public Affairs and Publications