"Put Your Own Mask on Before Helping Someone Else": The Capacity of Food Hubs to Build Equitable Food Access

December 7, 2018 - Lesli Hoey, Lilly Fink Shapiro, <bielacz1@msu.edu>

Authors  |  Introduction  |  Key Findings  |  Recommendations for Policy, Practice and Research  |  Study Background  |  Citation  |  Corresponding Author  |  Keywords  |  Access Article


Lesli Hoey, Urban and Regional Planning Program, University of Michigan; lhoey@umich.edu

Lilly Fink Shapiro, Sustainable Food Systems Initiative, School of Environment and Sustainability, University of Michigan; finkshap@umich.edu

Noel Bielaczyc, Center for Regional Food Systems, Michigan State University; bielacz1@msu.edu


The U.S. food market has increasingly come to resemble two systems: the mainstream market controlled by national brands and globally focused corporations, and an expanding alternate market of hyper-local direct sales. This division is tied to a gradual loss of midscale regional production and processing, which is seen as key to scaling up more sustainable, economically viable and socially equitable food businesses.

Food hubs are one emerging strategy for rebuilding this middle of the food system, by connecting small and midsized farms to schools, hospitals, restaurants, retailers and other buyers through aggregation and distribution infrastructure at the regional scale.

Food hubs are attracting public and private investment as research mounts to show how they are creating jobs, offering fair prices to farmers, and sparking wider economic development—but their contribution to affordable, local food access is understudied and inconclusive.

Through an examination of 11 Michigan food hubs, authors Lesli Hoey, Lilly Fink Shapiro, and Noel Bielaczyc ask about the extent to which and under what conditions food hubs can successfully achieve these dual social and economic goals.

Key Findings

  • It may be unrealistic and unsustainable for many food hubs to have sustained and widespread impact on low-income food access unless they can ensure their own financial survival and that of the farmers on whom they depend.
  • Most food hubs in this study—but especially nonprofits, newer food hubs, and those more dependent on external funding—prioritize or carry out food access activities in economically disadvantaged communities. Their reach and impact, however, is less certain.
  • Some food hubs may need to be subsidized, as a public good, unless and until the public sector commits to a more comprehensive strategy to address food system failures.

Recommendations for Policy, Practice and Research

  • Our findings should not be seen as definitive, but as a point of departure to investigate the geographic, economic, and political scenarios that pose different enabling or limiting factors when food hubs attempt to address inequitable food access in a meaningful way.
  • It may be unrealistic and unsustainable for many food hubs to prioritize local sourcing, farm viability, and equitable food access simultaneously, unless they can ensure their own financial stability.
  • Public financing could be one means to help food hubs move out of the so-called “poverty trap” many face, while maintaining their commitment to equitable food access.
  • Future research should consider:
    • Differentiating the type of food hubs being studied, to enable more appropriate expectations and recommendations;
    • Carrying out more comparative studies of the frequency, reach and duration of food hubs’ food access activities; and
    • Following food hubs through longitudinal case studies to track how changes in food policies help or hinder food hub innovations, especially around food access.

Study Background

Prior to 2012, Michigan could claim two food hubs. Today, a dozen food hubs are operating in Michigan, both small and large, serving anywhere from 2 to 800 institutional customers. Michigan is an ideal site to study the extent to which food hubs are contributing to food access due to several factors: the diversity of food hubs; the presence of a statewide food hub network; the Michigan Good Food Charter, which motivates work around food access; and the broader context of a diverging agricultural economy.


Hoey, L., Shapiro, L., & Bielaczyc, N. (2018). "Put Your Own Mask on Before Helping Someone Else: The Capacity of Food Hubs to Build Equitable Food Access." Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 8(3), 41-60. https://doi.org/10.5304/jafscd.2018.083.012.

Corresponding Author

Lesli Hoey, Urban and Regional Planning Program, University of Michigan; lhoey@umich.edu


food hubs; food access; agriculture of the middle; food system planning; Michigan

This article can be accessed at: https://www.foodsystemsjournal.org/index.php/fsj/article/view/650.

To inquire about a PDF version of this article, please contact the corresponding author.


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