Elizabeth Renter

Americans are eating better and are more concerned with where their food comes from, according to new data from the Department of Agriculture. And with this growing interest in health and food-sourcing, comes a desire to eat foods grown by local small farmers, those who still have a connection to the land and who can provide in-season foods that don’t have to travel thousands of miles to reach a grocery store.

Generally, these small farmers have had a difficult time getting started, finding farmer’s markets and road-side stands, one of the best options for delivering their wares to local customers. Reaching a larger market with these approaches is difficult. But with the advent of “food hubs,” the game is changing.

Food hubs are defined by the National Good Food Network as, “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.”

What does this mean? It means food hubs give small, local farmers the resources and collective pool they need to reach wholesale consumers, institutions and restaurants who want local foods.

Farmers who take part in these food hubs realize an increasing number of Americans want to know where their food is coming from. Many conscientious consumers are no longer satisfied with choosing their produce from a grocery store, where the vast majority of fruits and vegetables don’t only come from another state, but another country. People want “source-identified” products. Restaurants and wholesale buyers similarly want to provide such local foods but find it difficult to purchase these limited-quantity goods on a large basis in the conventional industry.

In the conventional, commodity industry, all of the apples from area orchards, for example, are gathered together, combined and aggregated into larger groups to be sold. This leaves consumers with produce that they may be able to identify the country or even state of origin, but they have no way of knowing which farm it came from.

With food hubs, not only can consumers identify where their food is coming from, but unlike farmer’s markets, these small farmers can pool their knowledge and connections to reach local restaurants and more. They create an organized distribution for these local foods that are in high demand.

Stewards of the Land is just one local food hub in Illinois. It was started in 2005 by Marty and Kris Travis. Now, it includes 40 small family farmers who each pay a small fee to join and reap the rewards of the collective pool with their membership.

"As we go, we can incubate these farms, and get them on their feet to do their own things," explained Marty.

This food hub, like others, is drawing in first-time farmers, the new ones to the field who may be inexperienced and lacking the necessary connections to become successful. Marty says a little over half their group is of this “new generation,” with many of them joining the hub before they even turned 18.

“We’re very interested in growing great produce, but we’re also very passionate about growing great farmers,” he said in a piece for NPR.

In this age of over-regulation, particularly when it comes to food production, is surprising the USDA isn’t only supporting food hubs, but staying relatively quiet on regulation matters.

“By serving as a link between the farm or ranch and regional buyers, food hubs keep more of the retail food dollar circulating in the local economy,” explains USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. “In effect, the success of regional food hubs comes from entrepreneurship, sound business sense and a desire for social impact.”

Food hubs are a win-win situation for everyone, it seems. Restaurants and producers are able to provide consumers with locally-sourced and identifiable produce while small family farmers seeking to practice sustainable farming have access to buyers with the means to keep them in business. This could be the future of farming in the US, as long as consumers keep demanding real food over mass-produced food-like products.

A list of local food hubs across the country can be found here.