What do you think about as you browse the grocery store for the raw and processed ingredients of your next meal? It’s likely you are focused on flavor and nutrition, for starters. But for a growing number of consumers, the journey their food takes to reach the table is just as important.
And that journey can be truly mind boggling. A humble, two-dollar can of soup might contain ingredients grown thousands of miles apart, or additives formulated in factories scattered across the globe. Mushrooms from Pennsylvania. Carrots from California. Hydrolyzed soy protein from Shanghai. Ferrous sulfate from mainland China.
And these far-flung ingredients have an equally broad impact. Maybe you have an energy-efficient fridge and a gas-sipping hybrid car—but have you considered that U.S. freight trucks log in the neighborhood of 430 billion miles every year, consuming 54 billion gallons of fuel to supply you with consumer goods, including food? Proponents of local food hope to shorten that distance considerably. Loosely speaking, “locavores” advocate eating lightly processed, seasonal foods grown or made close to home. And like the organic movement before it, the local food movement is largely a grassroots, consumer-led effort.
On paper, it’s a simple idea: Buy your food from local sources. In practice, however, it’s a bit more complicated. That’s because the mom-and-pop operation down the road faces basically the same problem as the mega-brand at the big box: Both rely on a healthy “supply chain”—farmers to grow and harvest; middlemen to warehouse, box, and ship; facilities that meet the standards of regulators; packaging, labeling, and shipping processes that are legal and economically sound; and so on.
National food brands have these aspects down to a science and scaled to mass production. But small-scale producers tend to struggle. That’s because, ironically, a few dozen metric tons of hydrolyzed soy protein can be easier to come by each month than a 100-pound sack of potatoes.
But a new kind of organization is emerging that connects the consumer demand for local production with the entrepreneurial passion of small-scale local producers. A good example is the Worcester Regional Food Hub, a program of the nonprofit Regional Environmental Council of Worcester, Massachusetts, in conjunction with several area organizations. The food hub provides small-scale regional producers with the kind of supply-chain logistics that would be otherwise out of reach.
Launched in 2016, the food hub offers two basic services. First, a “kitchen incubator” that provides access to a certified commercial kitchen, as well as planning and support, for budding food entrepreneurs who seek to start a new food-production business. And second, a marketing and distribution service that helps regional farmers tap into institutional markets like local hospitals and schools, where a consistent supply chain is crucial.
For Peggy Corbett, the commercial kitchen became headquarters for her successful local business, Peg’s Preserves, which sells jams and jellies from a local storefront and at area farmers markets. A small-scale enterprise founded upon her love of canning, Peg’s Preserves has seen local success, providing income for Corbett and the farmers who supply her.
In addition to the food hub, the Regional Environmental Council works on a number of projects designed to promote food justice in the Worcester region, including a farmers market, community gardens, and educational projects for area children, such as the YouthGROW program.
For executive director Steve Fischer, these various programs, and the food hub in particular, are tied to a larger need to empower both food producers and consumers. “The fight for food justice isn’t just a matter of food,” he says. “It’s about healthy foods and sustainable, local food systems that are good for our farmers and for the people who live here.”