John Usher, an enthusiastic proponent of the “buy local” culture, first embarked on his research project in the spring of 2016. The University of Lethbridge Dhillon School of Business professor wanted to know more about food hubs, described as businesses or organizations that manage the purchase, distribution and marketing of mainly local food producers. Usher wanted to see if local producers could benefit from a regional food hub and if a food hub could be supported by southern Alberta, particularly with respect to large institutional buyers. What started out as disappointing results, turned into a story about how local producers are finding and can find alternative ways to connect their food to their community.
Funded by the AGILITY Research and Innovation Fund (ARIF) and the Cor van Raay donation, Usher started off by hiring a graduate and an undergraduate student to assist in the project.
“I have always had an interest in food security,” says Usher, who also served a term as president of the Lethbridge Food Bank. “The more I read about the potentially unsustainable nature of global food supply, the more it seemed to me that there was a lot of good that could come from alternative approaches to producing and distributing food.”
Usher explained that the hyper-efficient food supply systems that are currently in place are fragile because fail-safe buffering and other adaptive adjustments are expensive. “Small causes propagate into large effects. We have seen some of that when California has a drought or Mexico has too much rain—inbound vegetable shipments are reduced to Lethbridge and we see pricing of $8 for cauliflower.” A food hub in southern Alberta could prevent some of those effects through increased local purchasing.
One of the initial steps to explore their research question led the team to contact a representative of the United States Department of Agriculture to find out the minimum economic scale for food hubs. That discussion almost put a stop to the work.
“In order to properly staff a direct-to-consumer food hub, you need a population of about 500,000 people as a market base, and that’s for a food hub that’s run by volunteers. If you want one with hired staff, you’re looking at a market of more like 1.5 million people,” Usher says. “The total population of south western Alberta south of Calgary is less than 150,000.”
Small food hubs can appear viable in the beginning, with volunteers and start-up grants, Usher adds, but they often fail after several years because operating funding is harder to come by and unpaid staff run out of steam and move on to other things.
While the discovery proved disappointing, the team decided to go ahead with interviewing a total of 17 local producers, buyers and distributors giving them a chance to weigh in on the idea of a local food hub. Subsequently, a picture of the alternative ways local and regional producers are operating in successful ways started to form.
While many producers agreed that if a food hub was built, it could be useful to them, Usher found they also questioned the need for one. “Some small farmers say they’re not really interested in getting any bigger – they grow and feed themselves, sell at the farmer’s markets, and get to meet the people who eat their food.”
According to the Cowichan Food Hub Co-operative on Vancouver Island, the values proposition of any regional food hub should include the principle of additionality, meaning “that its activities bring about an additional income for producers and supply for purchasers, but that its operations do not take away or compete with existing markets and sources.”
The definition is based on community-based values rather than competition and Usher found that many local producers were already making steps to ensure their own success in the community. Several producers had recently started up Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiatives of weekly subscriptions of vegetables and fruits to supplement their participation in farmers markets. Others were taking advantage of the availability of easy-to-use and cost-effective online ordering systems to greatly enhance their options in the direct-to-consumer market channel.
Through his research, Usher was still able to give recommendations for further stabilizing the local food supply. His suggestion for those with an interest in promoting local agriculture is the ‘facilitating food hub.’ This approach changes the role of the people who would be setting up the physical infrastructure of a traditional food hub (warehousing, trucks, and transportation logistics) to being only facilitators of the initial producer and purchaser connection. “They simply organize the opportunity for the people who grow produce to meet with the people who buy produce and don’t get involved with the business exchange in between,” says Usher. This allows big, institutional buyers like post-secondary education and health care providers to strike custom deals and begin to work together to explore quality and reliability issues with smaller quantities with a potential scale-up to larger orders if both party are remain in favour.
This approach, also called speed-dating for food, has been catching on since its earliest pilots in Minnesota and Michigan in 2007 and is becoming increasingly tech-enabled. For example, a speed-dating event put together in 2017 by FreshSpoke, an app-driven food hub in Barrie, Ontario, used Eventbrite to schedule its matchmaking events.
Usher concludes that food hubs are not only about food security, but also about community. “While a traditional food hub doesn’t appear to be financially feasible in southern Alberta, there are still community groups that enjoy connecting through food,” Usher notes. “Taking on the matchmaking role might be a great way to engage with local agriculture without incurring the financial risks and time commitment of actually running a business.”