Iowa food hubs emerging as strong economic force

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AMES, Iowa – 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.

And that’s just the revenue and jobs reported by only some 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. 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.

Critical links

The U.S. Department of Agriculture 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 the state and, if warranted, suggest recommendations that would support further development of food hubs.

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.

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 at www.leopold.iastate.edu/food-hubs.

Social issues

“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,” Bregendahl continued. “Food hubs are viewed as an important way to bring local foods from the farm to the table for everyone.”

The report shows that 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.

Food hubs join a litany of local food work that has been unfolding across Iowa since the late 1990s in the 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.

The revenue

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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