Findings of the 2019 National Food Hub Survey

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December 18, 2020 - Author: , , John Fisk, Justin Fast, and Pam Sanders

Since 2012, Michigan State University’s Center for Regional Food Systems and the Wallace Center at Winrock International have conducted the National Food Hub Survey, the primary source for national longitudinal data about food hubs.

The 2019 survey builds on results from 2013, 2015, and 2017 to identify trends in food hub operations, economic growth and viability, social mission, and opportunities and challenges faced by food hubs nationwide.

The 2019 survey contains several significant revisions, including new questions on the role that food hubs play (or do not play) in addressing racial equity in their communities and barriers to new institutional market opportunities. In order to dig deeper on this topic, a qualitative companion study that uses interviews with food hub practitioners and scholars was conducted concurrently to the 2019 National Food Hub Survey. We encourage interested readers to seek out this additional resource, titled Delivering More Than Food: Understanding and Operationalizing Racial Equity in Food Hubs that was published in August 2020.

Overall, the number of questions in the 2019 survey was cut by two thirds, greatly reducing the time it took food hubs to complete the survey questionnaire. The resulting survey report is proportionally shorter than previous reports and focuses primarily on highlighting new findings and reconfirming noteworthy trends from previous surveys.

Additional figures have been provided in Appendix A for readers wishing to further explore the survey data. Our goal was to create a more streamlined report format that is useful and accessible to a wider range of current and future food hub operators, partner organizations, policy makers, funders, and community members.

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Executive Summary

This executive summary is also available for download as a PDF.

The 2019 National Food Hub Survey is the fourth biennial survey of food hubs in the United States and the primary source for longitudinal data on this business sector.

Four key findings of the 2019 National Food Hub Survey. 1. The food hub sector continues to thrive and mature. 2. Hubs are pursuing social and environmental goals. 3. Supporting farm and supplier viability is important to hubs.4. Hubs see room for growth, but challenges remain.This report was nearing completion in March 2020 and therefore does not address the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis in detail. Please see the epilogue for the authors’ reflections on the role food hubs have played in supporting and enhancing the resiliency of local and regional food systems throughout the pandemic. We encourage readers to consider this context as they read the report, which offers a unique snapshot of pre-COVID food hub operations. This executive summary distills the top-level findings and themes from the 2019 National Food Hub Survey report.

1. The food hub sector continues to thrive and mature.

  • The proportion of hubs over 5 years old has increased since 2013 (Figure 1).
  • Established hubs employ more people (Figure 5) and total paid, full-time employees have increased overall (Figure 6).
  • Two thirds of hubs were breaking even or better (Page 29).
  • Virtually no hubs reported being denied loans or short-term lines of credit, although more than half of respondents did not apply for either type of debt capital (Figure 21).
  • Of the one third of hubs that are highly dependent on grant funding to carry out their core functions, about two thirds are nonprofits (Figure 16).

2. Hubs are pursuing social and environmental goals.

  • Nearly half of hubs track metrics on their social and environmental impact (Page 25).
  • 50% of hubs have some sales to lower-income customers or businesses in lower-income areas (Figure 23).
  • Hubs are actively engaging their communities in decision making and making regenerative investments (Figure 26).
  • 54% of food hub management positions were held by women, and 14% were held by people of color (Page 20).

3. Supporting farm and supplier viability is important to hubs.

  • Surveyed food hubs collectively purchased or procured products from 2,861 farms and ranches (Page 22).
  • Hubs reported $31.8 million in purchases in 2018 from small and midsized farms (Figure 11).
  • 92% of hubs said at least half of their farm and ranch suppliers were small or midsized (Figure 10).
  • Hubs are focused on the following (Figure 9):
    • Product quality
    • Product consistency
    • Sustainable production methods
    • Price

4. Hubs see room for growth, but challenges remain.

  • 82% of hubs say demand for their products and services has grown in the past two years (Figure 29).
  • Sales to colleges/universities and K–12 food service were up compared to previous survey data, but direct-to-consumer sales and sales to large supermarkets were down sharply (Figure 14).
  • Most hubs expected competition to grow, particularly from traditional wholesale distributors (Figure 31).
  • Meeting buyer pricing requirements is the largest challenge to expanding sales in institutional markets (Figures 32–34).

Trends and Takeaways

Overall, we see several trends and takeaways emerging from the 2019 National Food Hub Survey data. We hope these insights are useful for food hub managers and practitioners and help inform future research.

Sales to institutional markets continue to show great promise, but growth is uneven across institution type (Figure 14), despite many common barriers (Figures 32–34). With mounting interest and investment in hospitals and early care and education (ECE) centers, we expect to see hubs adapting lessons and successful practices from other institutional markets, such as universities and K–12 school food service.

Many hubs are focused primarily on selling fresh produce and herbs, which account for half of all sales (Figure 13). At the same time, seasonality of fruits and vegetables is one of the top three barriers to entering institutional markets (Figures 32–34), indicating a rising demand for lightly processed produce.

Food hubs have ranked “balancing supply and demand” as their top challenge across all four surveys (Figure 30). However, balancing supply and demand is the essential function of a food hub and encompasses a wide range of activities and factors. Unpacking the deeper meaning of this phrase is necessary to better understand specific operational limitations hubs are facing.

Download the full report to learn more!


Suggested Citation

Bielaczyc, N., Pirog, R., Fisk, J., Fast, J. & Sanders, P. (2020). Findings of the 2019 national food hub survey. Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems & Wallace Center at Winrock International. https://foodsystems.msu.edu/resources/2019-food-hub-survey 

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Tags: center for regional food systems, food hubs, michigan food hub learning and innovation network, michigan food hub network, national food hub survey


Authors

Noel Bielaczyc

Noel Bielaczyc
bielacz1@msu.edu

Rich Pirog

Rich Pirog
rspirog@msu.edu


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Center for Regional Food Systems

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