A Closer Look: Food Hubs Helping to Alleviate Food Deserts

By Lily Kelly, Gina Goodhill-Rosen, and Walker WellsGraphics by Tim Bevins

In our first blog in this series, we explored what food hubs are, and how food hubs like the Detroit Eastern Market can help bring fresh, heathy food into neighborhoods where it is not readily available.

In this post, we’ll explore in more depth some food hubs that serve the dual purposes of helping bring food to low-income neighborhoods while also supporting farmers with access to markets both inside and outside the food desert. This two-pronged approach to supporting local food systems is a big part of what makes food hubs stand out from other food distribution mechanisms, such as traditional grocery stores, or farmers’ markets. Because of the diversity of both the producers and sellers that they support, food hubs can create a stable platform that makes it possible to distribute healthy foods in a wider variety of ways, and to a wider variety of neighborhoods.

Food Hubs In a Food Desert

In many cases, food deserts form because the economics of a grocery store in the area are not favorable. Food hubs can generate revenue through both retail and wholesale produce sales, or even through philanthropy, as in the case of some non-profit food hubs.

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Food hubs are generally most valuable when a retail area is included in order to sell directly to residents, along with additional space to provide various fresh-food-related services to local residents, such as cooking classes or urban gardening workshops. A leading example of this model is Jack & Jake’s, a for-profit food hub located in Central City, New Orleans. They currently make nearly all of their revenue through selling to wholesale buyers, such as hospitals and schools, but they are in the process of renovating a 27,000 square foot school building into a retail space that will rest on a larger 65,000 square foot site, all located within a large food desert in central New Orleans.

In the retail area, customers will be able to buy both raw and prepared foods directly, while in the wholesale area, Jack & Jake’s will continue to consolidate deliveries for restaurants, hospitals, and other food buyers. The fact that they have several revenue streams helps to ensure their stability, and make it possible for them to provide additional services to residents, including workshops and cooking demonstrations.

In addition to providing a supply of fresh produce and meats, Jack & Jake’s is also building demand for healthy foods in two ways. First, they offer training for residents in their educational kitchen to help them understand how to cook potentially unfamiliar healthy foods, in particular traditional New Orleans cuisine. They also plan to partner with local non-profits, including the Tulane School of Public Health, to increase outreach and education concerning the benefits of a diet rich in healthy foods. Second, they partner with organizations that teach residents urban farming techniques, in order to build the necessary knowledge base within the neighborhood to empower residents to grow some of their own food.

Food Hubs Outside a Food Desert

A food hub doesn’t necessarily have to be in the food desert in order to benefit it. The Detroit Eastern Market, which we mentioned in our last blog post, is not located in a food desert, though many of its services, such as providing a wholesale night market that serves as a “one-stop shop” for small neighborhood grocers to purchase produce, are designed to assist residents who are.

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Similarly, the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture,[1] located in Alexandria, Virginia, operates a mobile market that brings fresh produce directly to food deserts, supplied from both their own educational farm as well as other local farmers as a means to increase healthy food access in the Washington, DC metro area. Arcadia operates as a non-profit entity, earning 18% of their revenue from sales, with the other 82% coming from contributions, sponsorships and grants. Currently, they own and operate a 5-acre educational farm, and a mobile market, and are preparing to open an aggregation center for the 15 local farms they serve. For these producers, Arcadia coordinates deliveries of produce to area restaurants and grocers, and includes some of their produce in the stock for their mobile market.

Arcadia’s mobile market vehicle is a converted biodiesel-powered school bus that sells fresh produce on a weekly schedule. The stops include schools, senior and low-income living facilities, community centers, parks, and other accessible locations in food deserts in the DC metro area. The mobile market accepts multiple forms of public assistance, including Federal food subsidy programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. They supplement this with a “Bonus Bucks” program, which uses corporate donations to match every dollar of public subsidy with an additional dollar of purchasing power. They provide a wide variety of heathy fresh and prepared foods, from raw kale to whole chickens to pre-mixed salads.

To maximize impact, Arcadia also hosts cooking and nutrition classes at elementary and middle schools, and partners with other local non-profits to increase awareness of the mobile market and , farming classes.. They are partnering with another mobile market operator, which will add another 8 stops to their weekly route. The mobile market is self-supporting through both sales of produce and sponsorship from local businesses.

Food hubs provide a variety of services, some of which are not possible using more standard food sales models such as grocery stores and farmers’ markets.
Food hubs provide a variety of services, some of which are not possible using more standard food sales models such as grocery stores and farmers’ markets.

Whether they are located in or near a food desert, food hubs have a great opportunity to provide a variety of services that can help increase fresh, healthy food access for the nearby residents. For our next and final post, we will be exploring some of the policy and financial opportunities to increase the presence of food hubs in the places where they are needed most.

[1] Mulder, Matt. Director of Development and Communications, Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture. Personal Interview. 18 April 2014