Iowa Food Hub Managers Working Group

food hub managers group
The food hub managers working group tours FarmTable Delivery of Harlan.

Iowa’s food hub managers created the Iowa Food Hub Managers Working Group (FHMWG) in mid-2015. The group holds quarterly meetings led by members to address operating challenges and needs for food hub businesses in Iowa. Together, group members are exploring how they can work together to

  • improve their technical knowledge of aggregation and distribution systems
  • source more local products
  • leverage funding
  • build partnerships
  • grow opportunities for farmers

Why food hubs?

According to USDA’s definition, a food hub is “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.” In other words, food hubs are working to get more local farm products from farm to table in more ways.

Their work is usually driven by the desire to create more opportunities for small and mid-sized farmers. They also want to expand the number of consumers who can access local food. In the United States, almost half of the food we eat is eaten away from home. That means food service and wholesale are critical components to localizing the food system. Farmers in Iowa sold more than $13 million in local food to wholesale and intermediated markets in 2013. But this only begins to scratch the surface of what’s possible.

How hubs help

Food hubs can help farmers access new markets, including wholesale markets. They enable farmers to take advantage of economies of scale through aggregated packing systems, shared marketing, and more efficient use of trucks and equipment. They can assist with production scheduling and meeting customer requirements. In some cases, they can even facilitate GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certification for farmers.

To operate in the competitive landscape of food wholesale, most food hubs end up providing these services “at cost” or at a very narrow profit margin. So, managers have to be very efficient and effective to be able to pay farmers a fair price while keeping their food hub afloat.

The group is currently managed by Kayla Koether, Allamakee County Extension (koether@iastate.edu) and Jason Grimm, director of Iowa Valley RC&D (jason@ivrcd.org).

Each meeting of the working group features a tour of one food hub, a discussion of that food hub’s operations, and a broader discussion about shared issues and challenges. The relationships built through the group have spurred some exciting projects. These include a statewide inventory of food distribution routes (together with Dr. Caroline Krecji at ISU’s Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering Department) and a North Central Sustainable Research and Education grant to pilot a shared inventory management system.

How important are food hubs in Iowa?

In 2014, Ag Ventures Alliance and North Central SARE funded a project to explore food hub activity in Iowa and to make recommendations that would support development of food hubs. The project was led by Healthy Harvest of North Iowa local food coordinator Jan Libbey, former RFSWG coordinator Jessica Burtt Fogarty, and Corry Bregendahl and Arlene Enderton from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

As part of the project they held meetings of service providers, food hub managers, and other business owners. They found that there was substantial interest in furthering food hub development. They also conducted the first statewide study of hubs in Iowa. The study found that in 2013, 13 food hubs in Iowa purchased $4.5 million in food from 459 Iowa farmers. Food hubs also reported employing 58 people, though most were part-time. The study suggests that even though food hubs are still an emerging sector, they are already having an impact.

Resources

News