by Elizabeth Theriault
Vermonters often characterize themselves with traits such as resilience, independence, and self reliance. Maybe it has something to do with feeling a little more removed from the rest of the country or that it just gets so darn cold up here our skin is a little tougher. I don’t have any science to prove this theory but either way it seems fitting that Vermont is leading the rest of the country in a movement towards communities developing more sustainable and self reliant food systems.
Building a robust and healthy food system involves creating a new kind of infrastructure that supports Vermont agricultural by promoting and developing local food marketing, aggregation and distribution systems, also known as a “Food Hub”. A common challenge for farmers is how to best get their food product from the farm to the marketplace. Economic challenges such as lack of capital to own a truck, refrigeration system and warehouse storage present a serious challenge for small to mid-scale farmers when trying to access and sell to larger markets. A food hub in many cases is designed to provide farmers with that infrastructure to sell their product to larger and wider markets by providing the infrastructure without requiring the initial financial investment from the farmer.
The USDA describes a food hub as “building stronger infrastructure for small and medium size producers.” This can take many forms. Food hubs around the country and Vermont may take the form of a website that allows buyers and sellers to exchange products on-line. In other cases a food hub works as an actual physical space to store, ship and process produce. Vermont has several examples of food hubs around the state that have taken a variety of forms but all share a common goal or purpose.
Mad River food hub located in Waitsfield, Vermont provides a fully equipped licensed veggie and USDA approved meat processing facility that allows small scale food producers to rent the space for their own unique production needs. The facility was designed with exactly this purpose in mind, to support small scale food producers who needed an affordable place that would allow them to grow their business over time.
Intervale Food Hub in Burlington, Vermont is another example of a physical type of food hub but acts as a larger community supported agricultural model where they aggregate food from an array of farms and distribute the food to whole sale buyers including retailers, restaurants, and institutions. Intervale Food Hub serves as the facilitator between individuals and business.
In Hardwick, Vermont you can find the Vermont Food Venture Center that follows a similar model to Mad River Food Hub in acting as an incubator kitchen for value added specialty producers providing them with a commercial facility to process their products at a reasonable price by sharing the costs of the facility.
Then in our own back yard we have two examples of what a food hub can look like. RAFFL has been working for 8 years on connecting farmers with consumers and strengthening our food system. Although RAFFL does not have a physical location for housing and distributing produce we often work as a broker between farmers and consumers. One example of this is our farm to work community supported agriculture (CSA) program to help farmers distribute their produce to larger institutions and business in the Rutland County.
The newest addition is the Vermont Farmers Food Center that just opened two weeks ago in Rutland, acting as the new home for the winter farmers market. The Food Center is working in collaboration with Vermont’s Farmers Market and the Vermont Food Bank and plans to operate as a physical food hub in the Rutland region providing storage and refrigeration for produce, a processing facility, and educational classes.
Although each “food hub” may have a slight different appearance either on a website or in a warehouse or office they all share a common language, passion and goal. Food hubs are about community sustainability, providing convenient and equal access to high quality food while securing future markets for farmers and making agriculture a more viable business. Food Hub foundations are in independence, self reliance, and resiliency and promise to strengthen and secure the future of our health through our food supply in Vermont. Visit your local food hub or find out more about them on-line:
Originally published in the Rutland Herald.