If you think the local foods movement is just a fad, think again.
For the first time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has included restaurants and grocery store sales in its local food markets survey, and the sales are hard to ignore: nearly $5 billion a year in fruits and vegetables from local farmers.
That link connecting area farmers to local businesses is the food hub, and it could very well be the next evolution in local markets.
The USDA has identified over 20 food hubs throughout the Southern region in such states as Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Florida, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Tennessee, and Oklahoma.
The latest addition to the food hub family is GrowFood Carolina, based in Charleston, S.C. With the assistance of a Southern SARE Sustainable Community Innovation Grant, the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League launched the food hub in September 2011. It’s the first food hub in the state.
“Less than 10 percent of what is grown in South Carolina is consumed in the state,” said Sara Clow, GrowFood Carolina general manager. “We hope to change that with GrowFood Carolina. The interest was there for local foods, but the one thing missing for the chefs, grocery stores, and farmers in bringing it all together was an actual physical location where local produce could be delivered by the farmer and distributed to area businesses.”
Clow feels that GrowFood Carolina can make an economic impact on the Charleston community by keeping local small to mid-sized farmers profitable and competitive. Indeed, in the short time the food hub has been operating, it has helped bridge sales and marketing of local produce between a growing number of farmers – some located over 120 miles away -- and nearly a dozen local restaurants and grocery stores.
In addition, GrowFood Carolina serves local residents by providing fruits and vegetables to food banks. The 10,000 square foot building, complete with a 6,500 square foot warehouse and an 800 square foot cooler, sits in an ideal location – right in the middle of Charleston’s food deserts, yet less than a mile from the vibrant downtown waterfront and restaurant scene and easy access to major highways and interstates that connect the city to the state’s coastal islands.
“We are witnessing a 300-year revolution in South Carolina,” said Dana Beach, executive director of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League. “There has been more excitement surrounding local foods and healthy eating than any environmental issue we’ve ever worked with. There has been an avalanche of commerce activity and as long as we have that infrastructure in place, I think there’s nothing that can stop it.”
Food hubs may also be the next evolution in Georgia’s agricultural industry, turning the state’s largest economic sector into an even larger engine of job creation and rural community revitalization.
With the aid of a Southern SARE Planning Grant, key agricultural stakeholders in the state have joined forces to create the Georgia Sustainable Agriculture Consortium.
“The goals of the group are to support sustainable agriculture systems and improve rural economies and communities by collaborating to create and deliver science-based information to current and future farmers, students, policymakers and the general public,” said Julia Gaskin, who coordinates extension programming in sustainable agriculture at the University of Georgia.
One of those goals is to launch two food hubs in the state within the next five years.
“Georgia is the 4th largest fruit and vegetable state in the nation, and is well positioned to take advantages of the opportunities afforded to us,” said Alice Rolls with Georgia Organics, during a recent kick-off event.
Key partners of the consortium include University of Georgia, Fort Valley State University, Georgia Department of Agriculture, Georgia Farm Bureau, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Georgia Organics, and Community Health Works.
“The demand for local foods is rising in Georgia, and with 80 percent of our purchased food coming from out-of-state, conditions are right for us to take advantage of local food opportunities,” said Harald Scherm, a professor in plant pathology at the University of Georgia. “With so many people interested in where their food comes from, we have an opportunity to reconnect with agriculture. And with 40 percent of consumers indicating not knowing much about sustainability of food production, we have an educational opportunity, specifically in food hubs.”
Jim Barham, with the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, agreed that the local food movement is not a trend.
“It’s here to say,” said Barham. "But the challenge for farmers in bringing those local foods to area businesses is the lack of distribution.” He said that food hubs are intended to provide that distribution, among other services, such as educational programming and food safety training.