Food hubs emerging as an economic force in Iowa

Food hubs emerging as an economic force in Iowa

Study shows 13 food hubs purchased $4.5 million in food from 450 Iowa farmers.

The first coordinated study of food hub development in Iowa shows that food hubs play a significant role in the state's local and regional food economy. Thirteen food hubs purchased $4.5 million in food from more than 450 Iowa farmers and supported 58 jobs this past year.

And that's just the revenue and jobs reported by only some of the Iowa food hubs identified in the study conducted by a group of local and regional food leaders and published by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. This study identified 16 food hubs and an additional 15 additional centers of food hub-related activity in Iowa.

GROWING: With increasing demand for fresh, local foods, food hubs aggregate, market and distribute products from small and midsize farms so that large-volume buyers, such as grocery stores or schools, can buy local foods from family farms in the region.

NOTE: To see an Iowa map showing food hubs or centers of food hub-related activity, go to leopold.iastate.edu/food-hubs-report-map.

Demand keeps rising for fresh, locally-produced food
With increasing demand for fresh, local foods, food hubs aggregate, market and distribute products from small and midsize farms so that large-volume buyers, such as grocery stores or schools, can buy local foods from family farms in the region. USDA has recognized food hubs as "critical links" in the success of farmers who want to take advantage of the economic opportunities from serving these new markets.

The Iowa food hub study began when Ag Ventures Alliance, business investors based in Mason City, awarded a $10,000 grant to members of the Regional Food Systems Working Group (RFSWG) to explore food hub activity in Iowa and, if warranted, make recommendations that would support further development of food hubs.

Hubs help bring local foods from farm to table
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. This team recruited a steering committee with representatives from USDA, food hub managers, farmers and researchers to guide the project. Support also came from the North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) professional development program.

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Results are included in a new report, "Food Hub Development in Iowa: Lessons learned from a study of food hub managers and regional food coordinators." It is available on the Leopold Center website.

Expansion of local, regional food systems has benefits
"Expansion of local and regional food systems has been linked to solutions that address some of our nation's most pressing social problems including economic and rural community development, obesity prevention, family farm preservation, food security and environmental protection," said Bregendahl, one of the report's authors. "However, local foods may not be readily available, with high-income families often enjoying the easiest access. Food hubs are viewed as an important way to bring local foods from the farm to the table for everyone."

The report shows most food hub activity is concentrated around the Des Moines metro area and along major arterials serving the Cedar Falls, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City urban markets. At the same time, farmers in northeast Iowa near Decorah and southeast Iowa near Fairfield provide product that is both distributed locally and beyond to urban markets eager for Iowa-grown food.

Study gathered financial performance information
Food hubs join a list of local food work that's been unfolding across Iowa since the late 1990s in form of farmers markets, farm to school programs, Community Supported Agriculture enterprises, community gardens, food policy councils, urban farms and more.

The new study gathered financial performance, structure and operations data from 13 of 16 food hubs initially identified by the steering committee and regional food coordinators throughout the state. Nearly $5 million in local food revenue passed through those food hubs. If the sample businesses were representative of all 31 food hubs and centers of food hub-related activity in the state, Iowa food hubs could be handling more than $10 million of locally grown food in the state.

Shane Tiernan, from GNB Bank in Grundy Center, is participating in a statewide group that will examine next steps for the study. He said the results reinforce concepts he posed in a 2013 white paper, that a statewide food hub network could create "sustainable economic development opportunities for small and beginning farmers as well as rural communities in Iowa."

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Food hubs are still in their infancy in Iowa
Project leader Libbey, who coordinates a local food group covering a nine-county area in north-central Iowa, agrees that food hubs could be a driver for economic development, but they are still in their infancy in Iowa.

"Identifying these food hub businesses and getting a better understanding of their status can help bring resources to support their development and garner the attention of funders and policymakers to recognize food hubs as a critical local food strategy in Iowa," she explained.

The study included two surveys: one of food hub managers and a second with local food coordinators completed in October. Food hub managers and steering committee members reviewed the survey results and met with a larger group to determine recommendations that will help support development of food hubs in Iowa.

Need info on producers interested in participating
Among the recommendations is the need for more detailed information about producers who may be interested in participating in a food hub and ready to scale up production for larger markets. Other recommendations are the need to form a food hub manager working group to better explore strategic cooperation and the need for continued work toward business goals.

Other members of the food hub steering committee are: Bob Cole, Ag Ventures Alliance; Gary Huber, Iowa Food Co-op; Jeff Jobe, USDA Rural Development; Caroline Krejci, ISU Center for Industrial Research and Service; Tom Lacina, Grinnell lawyer; Savanna Lyons, Leopold Center; Bob Riley, Feed Energy Company, Pleasant Hill; Greg Rinehart, Rinehart's Family Farm, Boone; Teresa Wiemerslage, ISU Extension and Outreach; and John Whitaker, USDA Farm Service Agency. A list of additional contributing members of the broader working group for this project can be found in the full report at leopold.iastate.edu/food-hubs.

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