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The case for food hubs

Each week during the school year, students and staff at the Palgrave Public School dig into a lunch of fresh, healthy food. On a recent Thursday this past June, the $5 “healthy crunch” salad bar featured an array of lettuce, carrots, zucchini, orange slices, sweet potato quesadillas and strawberry cupcakes. If the season is right, much of the food is grown down the road at Palgrave’s two-year-old community garden (known as The Farm) and on the grounds of the nearby United Church. And because, like most elementary schools in Ontario, Palgrave’s has no kitchen facilities, the food is prepared by volunteers at the Palgrave Community Kitchen, a certified facility located in the church’s basement.

To local food enthusiast Barb Imrie who, with the help of a United Way grant, helped make Palgrave’s dream kitchen a reality in 2009, the school salad bar program is just one of many benefits she hopes to bring to her area through the creation of a thriving community food hub. “What we have,” she says, “is a community kitchen that grew into a community garden, a community farm and now a community hub.”

Meanwhile, over in the Town of Erin near Hillsburgh, the Everdale Environmental Learning Centre has, since the 1990s, been evolving into a community food hub of a different stripe. The working farm is also a registered charity owned and run by a board of directors. Its stated aim is not just to grow food, but to educate the public and new farmers, and to build bridges between rural and urban interests. To that end Everdale runs training programs for young organic farmers, hosts children from kindergarten through high school, and runs workshops designed to get the general public excited about organic farming.

Funding comes mainly from grants and donations, though some revenue is raised through Everdale’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program which distributes fresh produce to about 200 people in the area and as far away as Toronto. Like Palgrave’s Imrie, Everdale board chair Wally Seccombe sees community as the driving force behind the hub. He talks about a “virtuous circle” in which courses on home preserving and cooking lead people to buy more vegetables so they can prepare and share with family and friends. “A hub only works if it’s local and multipurpose,” says Seccombe.

The food hub concept, which is gaining traction throughout North America, holds the solution to a problem that continues to bedevil the local food movement, and that is lack of infrastructure. How can local growers, farmers and artisans aggregate, process, market and share their goods? How can they get what they grow and produce from their fields and home kitchens to the consumer’s dining table and local institutions? Food hubs are the missing link in the local food chain.

Food hubs – central locations where goods and produce can be aggregated, processed and shared with consumers and institutions – are key to the success of the local food movement.

But food hubs come in many shapes and sizes, and usually evolve in response to the size and needs of the community. On the one hand – in sharp contrast in terms of scale to the Palgrave and Everdale efforts – there’s Toronto’s FoodShare. The 28-year-old nonprofit organization offers programs in nutrition, school lunches, workshops, markets, food boxes and much more, reaching 155,000 children and adults in the city every month under the rubric of “good healthy food for all.” How food hubs will evolve in smaller rural communities like those in Caledon, Erin and Dufferin is difficult to predict. An exact definition of a food hub is hard to articulate, says Eat Local Caledon’s Karen Hutchinson. “We’re in the first generation and nobody knows where it’s going.”

Still, in the Headwaters region, facilities like the Palgrave kitchen and Everdale are gradually evolving into places where local food and local folks can come together. Community hubs like these, as well as the existence of a growing network of weekly farmers’ markets throughout the region and retail outlets such as Creemore’s 100 Mile Store, demonstrate that interest in some kind of central facility is growing. “Right now, in Caledon,” says Hutchinson, “we don’t have a location for a hub,” which she feels should ideally be located on or near a major highway so it is easily accessible to farmers and consumers alike.

For Imrie, one of the most important functions of a food hub is reaching out to the community and educating people about the benefits of local food. In addition to the healthy crunch salad bar program, Palgrave’s certified kitchen acts as an incubator for local food businesses, providing caterers and local food entrepreneurs a place to nurture and perfect their businesses in the kind of state-of-the-art facility required by law.

Orangeville’s Kierstyn Eric spent two years using the community kitchen to perfect her shortbread cookies and build a customer base. Today she is the proud proprietor of Wicked Shortbread, a retail outlet on Broadway in Orangeville.

Every October the Palgrave kitchen holds a traditional fowl supper serving area residents turkey with all the trimmings. Then there’s the annual Senior’s Harvest Lunch at the Bolton library, which the kitchen caters. Once additional funding comes through, the community kitchen plans a series of cooking workshops called Food For Thought. And for one week in July, the kitchen and The Farm hold the Dirt to Delicious kids’ cooking camp. All these events are doing their part to help raise awareness about eating locally and sustainably. But Imrie admits that as a food hub Palgrave is just getting started.

“What’s missing,” she says, “are the farmers.” Even though The Farm runs a small CSA with about 53 subscribers, and in past years they have taken produce grown in the community garden to the Caledon farmers’ market in Bolton, “We still need to have a place where local growers can sell their food,” says Imrie.

Professor Alison Blay-Palmer, director of the Laurier Centre for Sustainable Food Systems in Kitchener-Waterloo, describes food hubs as “networks and intersections of grassroots, community-based organizations and individuals that work together to build increasingly socially just, economically robust, and ecologically sound food systems that connect farmers with consumers as directly as possible.”

Blay-Palmer sums up nicely what Barb Imrie calls “the field to fork connection.” Hutchinson, co-founder with Imrie of Palgrave’s Community Farm, compares hubs to public libraries because “they welcome people who take out a book on cooking one week, then one on gardening the next and on business startups the week after that.”

As Blay-Palmer sees it, hubs are not just part of the food industry supply chain, they are part of what she calls a “values network.” So while providing infrastructure to local farmers and businesspeople is a vital part of what hubs do, an equally important role is to engage people who feel isolated or lack skills in nutrition and cooking. Facilitating a wide-ranging combination of life and employment skills, personal support, healthy eating, and togetherness is what turns a commercial kitchen into a hub.

The Ontario government has jumped on the local food bandwagon with the recent introduction of the Local Food Act, a somewhat symbolic effort to raise awareness about the issue by, among other things, declaring the first week in October Ontario Local Food Week.

Despite all the hoopla local food still represents only about 5 per cent of all food sales, even though demand has grown by leaps and bounds. Under the tagline “Growing the business of local food,” the province’s Greenbelt Fund seeks to address the distribution problem by funding initiatives aimed at getting more local food into long-term care facilities, universities and colleges, schools and hospitals.

But critics say the organization ignores the part hubs play in the social health of communities, seeking only to link regional aggregators with existing large distributors. Still, one of the Greenbelt’s initiatives is an online marketplace (a cyber food hub if you will) at Ontariofresh.ca where producers and consumers can connect. It features such postings as a food truck operator in Waterloo looking for a supplier of local potatoes and a cherry producer in Norfolk County with bulk sweet cherries for sale.

Neighbouring Simcoe County has undertaken a study into the viability of creating a food distribution hub there, one that would aggregate and distribute regional produce throughout the county and beyond. The study won’t be completed until September, but Hutchinson speculates that Simcoe County, a diverse agricultural region, home to, for instance, the Holland Marsh, would like to establish itself as the Ontario Food Terminal north.

George Schrijver, a consultant on the project, says he is not at liberty to release details, but he admits the OTF is one model for the proposed Simcoe hub, which he describes as a “commercial enterprise, not socioeconomic.” He also says, “It’s not going to be virtual. There’s going to be a place.” Where that “place” will be has not been decided, but preferably near a major highway.

The three main objectives of a food hub in Simcoe County, according to Schrijver, are “one, to provide prosperity for local producers; two, to provide an opportunity for the consumer to access local food; and three, to expand opportunities for middlemen to buy and sell local products.” In his mind, social benefits will accrue as a spinoff from the economic benefits, but they will not be built into the plan.

Could such a hub ever be in the cards for Headwaters? Or is the area better suited to a network of small community hubs like Palgrave and Everdale? For her part, Imrie looks forward to a time when Palgrave will be a destination, a place where farmers and foodies “have some place to come together, where producers can bring their food to store it or process it, to sell it or share it.”

And the community is catching on. The healthy crunch salad bar has proved so popular, that with the Palgrave kitchen’s help, two other area schools plan similar programs this fall. Everdale is also expanding its efforts all the time, and thanks to the work of groups like Hutchinson’s Eat Local Caledon, the area’s farmers’ markets continue to thrive. Different hubs for different communities, but all committed to the same goal.

“There’s no one model, nor should there be,” Hutchinson says. As with the Palgrave community garden she helped establish, food hubs like fresh veggies are best when they’re organic.

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