Hubba Hubba

December 30, 2012

I’m only about three or four years late blogging about food hubs. A food hub is an institution that performs many of the functions that used to be performed by food wholesalers. It connects food producers—farmers, cheese makers, small scale commercial kitchens and processors—with consumers. That’s us, folks, but it may also include restaurants, small scale retailers and institutional food service providers like schools or hospitals. Food hubs take a lot of different forms. One model is a virtual network where farmers can post the availability of fresh fruits, vegetables or meat, milk and eggs so that people (often chefs) can do a pre-order. Delivery might be accomplished at a farmer’s market, but the information exchange saves time and allows and allows the chefs a better opportunity for menu planning. Another model is simply a slightly less random farmer’s market; where there is a concerted attempt to ensure that the goods on sale represent enough variety for someone to do a major portion of their weekly food shopping. Still other models focus on coordination activities to get fresh, local foods from fresh local producers into schools, where the fresh local food is expected to wind up in the stomach of fresh local schoolchildren. Hence, the phrase “freshman”.

If you are keen on food hubs, you probably don’t want to be looking at the Thornapple CSA website. You probably want either the official USDA website, or the less official but more informative website that has been put up by the Wallace Center through the support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation—an outfit that insiders like your blogger refer to (fondly) as WKKF. WKKF has rededicated itself to helping vulnerable children of late, and the “good food” network is configured as a collocation of projects organized around improving the nutrition and health of children. Food hubs are, in the mindset of WKKF, a part of that story.

Some food hubs operate successfully as for-profit businesses. The networking model, for example, can function with relatively little labor and a paid subscription by users to cover such costs as are incurred in marketing the food hub and maintaining the infrastructure. You’re probably not going to be the next Bill Gates or Warren Buffet with this business model, but in a city where a sufficient number of local restaurants compete for the favor of artisanal food patrons, you might be financially sustainable. Which is, as my local readers understand, a longwinded way of saying, “Don’t expect to see this in Lansing anytime soon.” Other models configure the hubbing activity as a public service—helping vulnerable children, if you have already forgotten.  Here the activity of identifying the network and connecting providers with consumers is more likely to be undertaken by a non-profit group or even by the government.

If you are of the neoliberal persuasion, you are likely to view these non-profit food hubs with deep suspicion. Even if they are using private funds (like a grant from WKKF), you are likely to think that they are at best a nuisance for those up-standing all-American businesses that are dedicated first and foremost to making a buck in whatever-manner-possible, and only secondarily to connecting people who have food (e.g. the producers) with people who need it. If you can make a buck by food hubbing, it’s got to be good, on this view. If you can’t, it’s communism, pedophilia and global terrorism. And if the gummit gets into it, well, needless to say, we are taxed enough already. Now we’ve covered the question of a non-profit entity competing with for-profit firms before, albeit without much closure. And there are a few of those old-fashioned wholesalers out there, still doing the hubba hubba without the benefit of a grant from WKKF. So if you are of the neoliberal persuasion, there is indeed some reason why you might look at this phenomenon and say: “Hub? Huh?” To which we could and probably should say volumes, but a brief comment on risk will suffice.

Old-fashioned local wholesalers have declined because they have been outcompeted in the commodity sector. In this case, we can define “the commodity sector” as that portion of the food system where you don’t know and don’t care where it comes from, and where you are primarily focused on price. For very large businesses (like grocery stores and chain restaurants) it has proven profitable to either absorb the process of sourcing, purchasing and distributing food products into your own organization, or to contract it out to other very large companies, often operating at a national or international scale. The guy who was running a wholesale outfit across the street from a regional farmer’s market in 1956 has found it more and more difficult to make any money delivering to local markets and restaurants as the local markets and restaurants have increasingly come to have names like “McDonald’s”, “Applebee’s” or “Kroger’s”. A guy who takes the risk of buying truckloads of highly perishable products on the off-chance that they can be sold for a profit to other local businesses winds up getting stuck with rotting Brussels sprouts now and then. And as guys like that go under after too many Brussels sprout episodes, businesses (restaurants especially) that don’t want to go the route of a commodity food system find it harder and harder to find high-quality, source-identified products to serve. And even those who have stayed in business tend to think that keeping track of where all that stuff is coming from is a nuisance they’d rather not deal with.

Hence, the food hub. Very much like the CSA, one model for a food hub is to figure out some way for the risk of rotting Brussels sprouts can be shared by all users—producers and consumers alike. But there’s an ethic behind this, and it ain’t the neoliberal ethic that celebrates profit above all else.

Now if we can just figure out some way to fund this!

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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