Spotlight: North Carolina’s Food Hubs
North Carolina is in the bottom 10 nationally when it comes to food security. This, despite the fact that it is in the top 10 in terms of agricultural production. It seems though that within this dichotomy, there is opportunity: leveraging food grown in North Carolina to help more people living in the state access healthy food. And even more so, doing this in a way that brings benefit to our local farmers and local economies. How can this be achieved? One answer is food hubs.
What are Food Hubs?
Food hubs are an important and unique component of our state’s local food system helping to provide healthy fresh food to communities, while supporting local farmers, and enhancing overall community development. They are an often-unnoticed part of the food system offering a combination of aggregation, processing, distribution, and marketing services to those who grow.
Food hubs are just that, hubs – bringing different parts of the food system together. They connect a network of small producers who each may grow only one or two products (e.g., sweet potatoes or blueberries) with consumers and institutional buyers (restaurants, hospitals, schools, etc.) that want to purchase a variety of products that have also been washed, cut, or otherwise prepared for food service. They also help keep food dollars circulating in the local economy, increasing markets for small growers, and are committed to financial sustainability and fair prices across the food chain.
While some food hubs have been part of the North Carolina eco-system for more than a decade, their role was elevated in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. They became significant contributors to the food security chain, securing federal and philanthropic dollars to source healthy food at fair market value from farmers and producers and partnering with diverse local partners to ensure it reached those most in need.
“Food hubs tend to be mission-driven organizations and have a broader sense of our obligations to the people that we’re working with. Organizations are starting to do more collaborative work, which is good in building an effective system throughout the state in a pretty intentional way.”
NC Food Hub Collaborative
Realizing the benefits of further expansion of the food hub model, in 2020 Resourceful Communities, a rural technical assistance provider based in North Carolina, helped establish the NC Food Hub Collaborative (the Collaborative), with grant support from the Blue Cross NC Foundation. The goal: to sustain and grow food hubs through capacity building, collective advocacy, evaluation, and more.
The Collaborative is a group of eight nonprofit, mostly rural food hubs spread across the state that work together to support each other’s growth and sustainability. Members include:
- Working Landscapes: Warren County
- Feast Down East: Pender County
- Men and Women United: Columbus County
- Sandhills AgInnovation Center: Richmond County
- Farmer Foodshare: Durham County
- High Country Food Hub: Watauga County
- Foothills Food Hub: McDowell County
- TRACTOR Food and Farms: Mitchell County
Resourceful Communities serves as the “backbone organization” providing technical assistance, facilitation of peer-to-peer learning, direct financial support, network building, and identifying new market opportunities – where they are seeing success. A new $1.7M Blue Cross NC Foundation grant in June 2023 will support the work of the collaborative over the next three years to continue to strengthen the food hub network.
A Local Food Hub Helping Its Community
Collaborative member, Working Landscapes is one model for food hub effectiveness. They operate out of Warren County, a rural area on the Virginia border, where it and surrounding counties are made up of small farms that can struggle in finding new markets. Working Landscapes was established in 2010 by Carla Norwood, PhD, who grew up in the area, and her husband Gabriel Cumming, PhD. They are the only North Carolina food hub that, in addition to aggregating produce from small local farmers, wash and chop the produce for easy use by institutional purchasers like schools. As a result, they are the first food hub to become part of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School Program, which sells a variety of locally grown fresh produce to schools.
Carla’s vision for the organization is to provide reliable markets for the farmers they work with while also operating a viable business that can serve as an example of how the local North Carolina food system can work.
“Food hubs tend to be mission-driven organizations and have a broader sense of our obligations to the people that we’re working with,” says Carla. “Organizations are starting to do more collaborative work, which is good in building an effective system throughout the state in a pretty intentional way.”
The success of Working Landscapes is encouraging, demonstrating the positive impact local food hubs can make in their communities. Increasing support and resources for food hubs in our state provides a proven avenue to make healthy food more accessible. And while it will not solve every problem overnight, it can be an important step in the right direction to ensure more people have access to healthy food, which, in turn, can help lead to healthier lives.
Learn more about the Foundation's focus on healthy food.