Improving Food Deserts Through Food Hubs

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


The following is part one of a three-part blog series summarizing the results of our research into the role that food hubs can play in neighborhood sustainability and the urban food network.

Over the past decade, roughly 300 food hubs have emerged nationally to enable small- and medium-sized farmers to gain entry into new retail, institutional, and commercial markets that would be difficult or impossible for them to access on their own. Food hubs come in many shapes and sizes. Some own and operate the cold storage facilities, warehouses, and trucks for the collection and distribution of produce, while others primarily act as brokers that facilitate, aggregate, market, and sell produce among multiple farmers, storage facilities, and distributors.

Global Green is interested in howFoodHub_States_small-01 food hubs can improve the situation in low-income communities that have limited access to fresh food, otherwise known as food deserts. An urban food desert is defined by the USDA as a neighborhood, often a census tract, that has a poverty rate of 20% or greater, or a median family income at or below 80% of the area median family income, and at least 33% of the population living more than one mile from a grocery store. The USDA estimates that 13.5 million Americans live in food deserts.

Food hubs seem to be a natural fit to serve food deserts, yet they have not been recognized as readily as other strategies, such as grocery stores, farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture, urban farms, community gardens, or fresh food offered to convenience stores. Fortunately, in some communities, food hubs have Fh-Fd_2-04emerged as a vital part of improving food access in food deserts, with approximately 13 percent of food hubs currently located in food deserts. Increasing this number to better realize the potential synergy between food hubs and food access efforts is a key first step. But to be truly effective, food hubs need to offer access to local residents through some type of storefront, stand, or other type of distribution.

The Eastern Market in Detroit is a prime example of the power of a food hub to help both farmers and underserved communities. The Market’s mission is to be “the undisputed center for fresh and nutritious food in southeast Michigan.” An indoor, 5-day-a-week farmers’ market, the Eastern Market leases vending spaces to different farmers, who can then sell directly to the public. This gives the shoppers the ability to access a diversity of products and engage directly with farmers to learn about the food

CaseStudy_v2they are buying. To make fresh food available where no retail outlets exist, Eastern Market coordinates with churches, residents, and community centers throughout Detroit to host “pop-up” farmers’ markets. Through these efforts, they are able to leverage their ability to manage and aggregate healthy food in order to support local entrepreneurs and increase access to healthy foods at the neighborhood level.

The Eastern Market campus also features a shared cooking space to support residents who may not have stoves, ovens, and cooking equipment in their apartments, as well as entrepreneurs who can use the facility to prepare meals that can be sold elsewhere. Cooking classes are also offered to help residents understand how to prepare unfamiliar foods and make the transition to a healthy diet.

Leaders like Eastern Market show the potential for these hubs to strengthen the urban food network. As food hubs are still an emerging phenomenon, there is a unique opportunity to help shape the role they will play in our food system to increase food access, improve health, and promote urban sustainability. We’ll continue to explore this concept and how it can be applied in the next blog post in this series.