Local Food Hub - Solving the Distribution Issue

Farming is not easy work. Running a business, gauging changing weather patterns and getting crops to market are only a few of the many responsibilities farmers face. For those who seek to sell their produce to local restaurants, hospitals and schools, the obstacles are substantial. These institutions, in need of reliable supplies of specific crops, often buy from large suppliers, which are often better equipped to fill their orders.

I recently spoke with Emily Manley, Communications Manager of Charlottesville, Virginia’s Local Food Hub, a nonprofit trying to help farmers solve the local distribution dilemma. Local Food Hub (LFH) is the brainchild of director Kate Collier, who got the idea while working at a shop in Charlottesville that sourced products from local farmers. She began to notice the distribution, accounting and marketing challenges farmers were facing, including farmers sometimes driving up to 50 miles to deliver $20 worth of produce. It became clear to her that the economics were a burden for the farmers, and she sought to ease this. Last year, Collier paired up with Marissa Vrooman. Collier’s local connections and Vrooman’s strong agricultural roots informed the direction of Local Food Hub.

Local Food Hub began with 10 local farmers due to Kate’s contacts from the store. It quickly grew —through word of mouth and mailings, they are currently working with 40 local farmers. LFH gives farmers a price range when purchasing produce, and then there is a minimal mark-up when selling to local vendors, essentially to cover the costs of the nonprofit. LFH fundraises, applies for grants and has received private donations to fund their work. Local Food Hub acts as a wholesaler for local foods and a nonprofit service organization geared to providing farmers with support and consistency by dealing with invoices, marketing and sales. Farmers drop off their produce at the distribution warehouse, which is then delivered by the LFH truck; deliveries are made approximately four to five days a week.

Local farmers who participate with LFH continue to sell produce at farmers' markets and through Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSA), and LFH provides a good supplemental income. Not all farmers who work with LFH are certified organic because many cannot afford to jump through the many and sizable hoops associated with certification; however, all spray minimally (if at all) and otherwise practice sustainable methods.

LFH learned some valuable lessons in their first year. Last summer, they bought too much summer squash and couldn’t meet orders for other veggies. They evaluated their needs over the year, and realized they couldn’t buy a lot of one crop, they had to diversify their supply. They started to grow “gap crops” on their educational farm, and planned out the upcoming year.

Local Food Hub has two arms. The first is the aforementioned distribution warehouse in Ivy, Virginia where food is dropped off by farmers as far as 60 miles outside Charlottesville. The second arm is the educational farm in Scottsville, Virginia. The farm is certified organic with two farm managers, three apprentices and this summer, interns from Charlottesville High School who helped out at the farm three days a week. The farm holds volunteer events and runs youth programs to teach skills and farming methods. Emily explained that “many of them did not like it at first, but they get a lot out of being out on the land and seeing where their food comes from.”

At the core of the organization is the belief that all people deserve access to food grown in their community; in fact, LFH is committed to donating twenty-five percent of the food to local food banks. Local Food Hub also works with larger institutions, including schools with tight budgets, but which try to find accommodations for the extra money it costs to purchase local food. Some of the schools don’t even have kitchens, only reheating facilities! Under these circumstances, change doesn’t come without challenges, but Emily points out that “often it only takes one person in these places to change things”. LFH has been working with Dale Haskins at University of Virginia Medical Center Food and Nutrition Services, who is dedicated to eating local and has been a strong advocate to source produce from LFH and serve it to employees and patients in the Medical Center’s two cafeterias.

LFH is just getting started and they seek to continually work with larger institutions to increase their impact on the community. Down the road, they are interested in expanding into local meat distribution in the off-season. In the end, Emily explained that the goal of LFH is to “establish a working model that is replicable in the future for other communities,” truly an invaluable contribution to the reinventing the food system.