Food hubs are entities that connect farmers and food producers with larger markets for their products. Through funding from Erb Cool Projects, I attended the National Food Hub Conference in Atlanta, which was sponsored by the National Good Food Network. The biannual conference brings together food hub operators from around the country to share best practices, lead workshops on hub business operations, and provide a platform for discussing and highlighting the challenges operators face. The conference gave me a better understanding of how food hubs work.

The term “food hub” covers various operating approaches, from cooperatives to for-profits to benefit corporations: There is no one right way to organize a food hub, which is part of what makes them interesting. People are trying a panoply of different approaches to improve the relationship between farmers/food producers and buyers.

As consumer demand for local food has increased, food hubs have cropped up to fill a gap in supplying larger markets, particularly institutions like hospitals, school districts and restaurants, with locally grown and produced products. Small farmers often cannot grow enough of an item to fulfill a larger institution’s needs, but a food hub—buying products from multiple local farmers—can consolidate large enough quantities to serve those needs. The main difference between food hubs and traditional wholesalers is their emphasis on providing locally sourced products and their commitment to other social goals, such as supporting local economies, small farmers, and organic and sustainable farming practices.

At the conference, I learned that the local food landscape is changing. Food hubs that have retail outlets or community-supported agriculture boxes that they sell directly to consumers are now competing against a growing number of conventional supermarkets that offer local food items. However, for larger supermarkets, maintaining relationships with multiple local producers for each vegetable they carry may not make as much sense as relying on a food hub to procure local items for them. Food hubs may maintain a valuable role as specialist suppliers of local foods.

Another challenge is the definition of “local.” As some hubs have grown larger, they have begun sourcing from farther afield, and people disagree about what should be considered local. Unlike the term “organic,” local does not have an official legal definition. Some food hub operators say they disclose where the product comes from and allow their end customers—whether individual shoppers or institutional buyers—decide what is local enough.

Transparency, however, comes at a price. Many hubs strive to be transparent about where their products come from, but sometimes this results in customers, generally larger buyers, circumventing the food hub and going direct to the grower. Still, certain types of buyers and some farmers may continue to see value in having the food hub handle consolidation and distribution, which can be time consuming and expensive, especially as hubs become more specialized.

Also at the forefront of people’s minds is the question of equity, and whether food hubs are doing enough to promote a more equitable food system. There is concern within the local food movement that it is succeeding in bringing healthy, sustainably grown foods into more markets, but that these foods are not accessible to everyone because they are sometimes more expensive than conventionally grown and processed food. Fresh foods also require more time and knowledge to prepare.

These factors can deter low-income buyers from incorporating more fresh food into their diets. Some food hubs say they sell to food service organizations, such as hospitals, schools and other institutions that in turn prepare meals for people of all income levels and backgrounds, and in this way, they reach more vulnerable or marginalized populations.

Other food hubs operate tiered subscription models or work-trade opportunities for their community-supported agriculture boxes to try to make them more affordable. One plenary speaker on a panel about equity charged food hub operators to make sure they engage with all parts of the communities where they operate and reach out to those who usually get shut out. She reminded attendees that they are not offering a challenge to the traditional food system if they don’t make equity a central tenet of their business.

I learned that, while many  food hubs are mission driven and have policies and incorporating documents that speak to their mission to improve the food system—such as keeping farmers on the land and connecting more people with their food—they still have to make daily decisions that may conflict with their mission to various degrees. By building strong relationships with their growers and customers, they may be better prepared to make decisions—even in difficult situations—that uphold their values and allow them to remain in business.