Food hubs have been getting a lot of buzz in Maine lately and there’s good reason. When you have an organized way to bring farmers and producers together with the public, we all stand to gain. As USDA agricultural economist Alan Borst puts it, a “food hub is a facility that is central to producers and has a business management structure that facilitates the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution or marketing of locally or regionally produced food products.” In other words, they are, as Sarah Smith of the foodhub The Pickup puts it, “the coolest middleman around,” helping small farmers reach large markets.
Food hubs are different from farmers’ markets, farm stands, and Community Supported Agriculture systems. They act as intermediaries that add value to the marketing of produce and help establish consistent sources of local food. They allow smaller producers to act collectively so that they have more market appeal – and access – to larger buyers than they would have on their own. They also help support healthier communities by aggregating enough produce from small farmers to serve institutions like schools and hospitals.
While foods hubs are also gaining traction nationwide, they are particularly important in Maine with our strong agricultural economy. There are many variations on the food hub model, but each of them emphasizes the connection between farm and community and provides resources for farmers to leverage their products so that we all have greater access to food grown right here in Maine. Here are some noteworthy examples:
Unity Food Hub: The Unity Food Hub’s sole mission is to “aggregate, market & distribute Maine-grown foods.” They act as wholesalers of local produce, operate a multi-farm farmshare program with pickup sites throughout Maine, and offer group ordering discounts for expensive packaging supplies. The schoolhouse out of which they operate in Unity also serves as a community space and event center. www.unityfoodhub.com
The Pickup: Run by farmers in Skowhegan who understand the challenges of getting their food to market, the Pickup works with over 70 Central Maine farmers and food producers, distributing their food through a CSA-style grocery delivery service and through wholesale channels. The Pickup also works to bridge the gap between Maine-grown products and low-income consumers. www.thepickupcsa.com
Crown of Maine Organic Cooperative: Established in 1995, Crown of Maine is one of Maine’s original food hubs, with a mission of strengthening local economies and consumer/producer relationships. They source and distribute all around the state, including to many local buying clubs and food coops. www.crownofmainecoop.com
Northern Girl: Tackling the particular challenge of distribution in remote Aroostook County, Northern Girl sells the top notch percentage of their farmers’ produce on the fresh market and processes the rest into value-added (primarily frozen) foods to feed locavores the rest of the year. They serve institutions, universities, markets, and distributors. www.northerngirlmaine.com
Up and coming/in progress food hubs:
The Fork Food Lab: A just-opened “quasi food hub” in Portland. Rather than connecting farmers to consumers, The Fork provides opportunity and resources for food producers to market and distribute their goods. They offer a community kitchen that specialty food producers, food trucks, bakeries, and catering companies can rent (saving the cost of expensive equipment) plus a public tasting room. According to their vision, “Marketing boosts from the tasting room, collaboration with other members, and advice from the network of advisors involved in the project will all help grow sales.” They also plan to employ a distribution truck in 2017 that will help put members product on new shelves all across Maine. www.forkfoodlab.com
The Good Food Council of Lewiston/Auburn: Focused on the issue of hunger and lack of access to good food in the Lewiston Auburn area, the GFCLA envisions Lewiston-Auburn becoming “a community with a thriving food system that supports healthy people and neighborhoods and a strong local economy.” Their mission is not singularly focused on opening a physical food hub but on helping various organizations collaborate on the same initiatives that are central to food hubs: connecting farmers to consumers in a way that is economically beneficial to everyone. www.goodfood4la.org
Sustain Wayne Masonic Hall Project: The community organization Sustain Wayne has a mission to foster connections around local food, energy conservation, community building and the arts. They recently purchased Wayne’s historic Masonic Hall and are in the process of renovating it to become a multi-use community center and food hub. www.sustainwayne.org