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Rural Health Information Hub

Food Hubs

Food hubs are local aggregation, processing, and distribution resources for small growers and purchasers. Food hubs combine yields from many small farms to create larger quantities of products to sell to retailers and institutions. This takes pressure off small farmers to continuously produce large yields, because products from other farms can make up the difference if yields are low. Distributing food to large purchasers with higher demands can be difficult for smaller producers, but food hubs allow their products to reach large-volume buyers such as hospitals, grocery stores, and workplaces.

Food hubs can also act as processors. Value-added processing increases the value of the food for both the producer and the purchaser. Freezing, cutting, peeling, washing, and packaging food are examples of value-added processing. For example, schools can easily use pre-washed, peeled, and cut carrots, because they take less time to prepare, and schools might offer to pay more for this processing. Additionally, bulk purchasing of processing materials by the food hub passes savings on to the farmer and the purchaser.

Examples of Food Hub Programs

  • Fifth Season Cooperative is a food hub in western Wisconsin that operates as a cooperative business. Its goals are to increase accessibility to local food and help support the viability of smaller farms. Its service connects products from small, local farms to buyers across the Midwest. The cooperative serves large institutions such as the Mayo Clinic Health System, Chicago Public Schools, and Milwaukee Public Schools while also reaching institutions in rural Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota. By working with many farmers, Fifth Season Cooperative offers Midwestern institutions a wide range of locally grown products.

Implementation Considerations

Food hubs allow smaller retailers access to local foods. Because the produce yield threshold is not as high as it is for large food processing sites, food hubs benefit rural communities. Some large wholesale distributing companies require grocery stores to purchase a minimum of $10,000 of groceries per week. For rural grocers, that minimum may be too high.

Food hubs can be privately or publicly owned and operate as for-profit or nonprofit entities. They require:

  • Solid relationships with local farmers and purchasers
  • Detailed and accurate business plans
  • Adequate workspace
  • Distribution vehicles
  • Knowledge of and adherence to state and federal laws concerning food processing and distribution

The USDA offers grants for local food hubs, and additional funding can be found through food system grants and local economic development councils.

Resources to Learn More

Food Hubs: Emily Manley at TEDxUVA
Discussion about the role of food hubs and how they impact local food systems.
Author(s): Manley, E.
Organization(s): University of Virginia, TEDx Talks
Date: 10/2013

Hudson Valley Food Hubs Initiative
Research summary on the strengths and weaknesses of foods hubs in the Hudson Valley.
Author(s): Brannen, S.
Organization(s): Columbia University
Date: 4/2013

Local Food Directories: Food Hub Directory
Searchable directory of local food hubs and their available products. Corresponding map shows the physical location of each food hub.
Organization(s): U.S. Department of Agriculture