Needs Assessment for the Establishment of Food Hubs Using Geographic Information Systems

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2012: $9,902.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Grant Recipient: Iowa State University
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Cynthia Haynes
Iowa State University
Faculty Advisor:
Jennifer Bousselot
Iowa State University

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Fruits: apples, apricots, berries (blueberries), berries (brambles), berries (cranberries), berries (other), berries (strawberries), cherries, grapes, melons, pears
  • Vegetables: asparagus, beans, beets, broccoli, cabbages, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucurbits, eggplant, garlic, greens (leafy), leeks, onions, peas (culinary), peppers, radishes (culinary), sweet corn, tomatoes, turnips, brussel sprouts


  • Education and Training: extension, networking
  • Farm Business Management: budgets/cost and returns, cooperatives, e-commerce, farm-to-institution, feasibility study, market study, risk management, value added
  • Sustainable Communities: infrastructure analysis, local and regional food systems, new business opportunities


    Food Hubs in the Upper Midwest United States
    A survey of intermediate organizations, food hubs, in local and regional food supply chains found 97 food hubs operating in the Upper Midwest United States in 2012. They operated mostly as cooperatives and corporations including, consumer cooperative grocery stores, producer cooperatives, wholesale distributors, multi-farm CSA’s, and produce auctions. The variety in size, structure, and resources needed for food hubs to operate suggest that each food hub formed in a unique context and case studies may be more valuable than aggregated demographic data.


    Context, Background, and Rational

    Local foods industries increase the quality of life in rural communities by providing job opportunities, keeping money circulating in the community and increasing access to fresh, healthy foods. By assisting growers with increasing the size of their business and the industry we hope to not only better their lives but also the lives of all residents in their communities. The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Ohio State University, and the USDA have all recently published reports recognizing the need for increased production of local foods and identifying lack of infrastructure as a key limitation (Clark et al., 2011; Martines et al., 2010; Pirog et al., 2011). Commercial distributors and retailers require large quantities of produce from few business entities in order to supply consumer demand and simplify business transactions. One way to meet the needs of distributors and retailers is to aggregate produce from multiple farms at a single location for packing, processing, and shipment. These facilities, known as food hubs, act as brokers between farmers and distributors or retailers.

    Developing food hubs that utilize current food distribution chains will also open new markets of scale currently unavailable to the majority of growers due to their size. Food hubs allow retailers and distributors to source produce locally to meet consumer demand. This is currently difficult due to the quantity needed by these organizations. Food hubs not only have the capacity to provide effective and efficient means of aggregating and distributing physical product but also communicating information between growers, distributors, consumers, researchers, and government agencies. Food hubs may provide means for better educating growers of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), state food regulations, business opportunities, and consumer preferences. Food hubs also provide researchers with easy access to producers for collecting evidence of their contribution to state economies, information on production and marketing activities, labor needs, and current capacity.

    Food Hub Benefits to Growers

    Food Hub Benefits to Distributors

    Collective marketing power

    Single entity for business transactions

    Reduced direct marketing activities

    Able to source large quantities of produce

    Shared packing and processing facilities

    Single location for pick up

    Central location for deliveries

    Increased food safety & quality compliance

    In short, the development of food hubs has the power to create major progress in multiple recommendations from state departments. For example, recommendation 3.1 from the Iowa Food and Farm Plan: Plan and implement a set of four to six innovative and comprehensive local food business projects across the state. We will accomplish this by conducting SWOT analysis, recording strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to food hub development and the process of developing successful food hubs using two case studies. Then we will make this information available for other groups of organized growers who are interested in forming similar organizations.

    Literature Review

    Food hubs have been researched as possible ways to increase the amount of local food available to consumers through both traditional and alternative supply chains. Several state governments and the USDA have recommended more research on the social, economic, and environmental impacts of food hubs. They are also calling for increased efforts in growing this sector of the agriculture economy (Clark et al., 2011; Martines et al., 2010; Pirog et al., 2011). Rebecca Jablonski (GNE11-021) researched the impact of government subsidies on increasing the number of food hubs and the impact it would have on local farmers. We intend to use similar survey and interview techniques but are interested in analyzing conditions that promote success such as minimum number of growers, minimum local population, availability of labor, access to highways, etc. By looking at these conditions separately from government assistance we will be able to assist with creating a self-sufficient industry. Brad Masi (LNC02-207) worked to create a food system for Northeast Ohio centered on the university farmstead. They focused on using the program to educate future farmers and at risk children. We aim to develop and record the process these food hubs have undergone as a future food hub resource.

    GIS is an appropriate way to analyze favorable conditions for food hub establishment for three reasons: the information is connected to a location and is spatially variable; much of the information is either in GIS or is in a form that is easily converted to GIS; and GIS allows us to view the data through maps, tables, and charts giving us multiple ways to view, analyze, and draw conclusions from the data. We believe that the combination of these data and methods will provide the best products for aiding these food and farming systems. Monika Roth (ONE07-074) addressed institutional buyer’s needs by engaging large producers capable of meeting the needs of larger buyers and informing them of institutional buyer’s requirements. We will address this same issue using spatial analysis of smaller producers and institutions to make recommendations for how producers could aggregate and form cooperatives to fill institution’s needs. June House (CNE08-045) constructed a comprehensive database of local agriculture surrounding Rehoboth, MA and utilized GIS to inform local agencies of agriculture in the area. They were unable to perform all of the GIS analysis they proposed due to constraints with time, collaborators, and privacy issues, and suggest that future GIS analysis of producers would make for an interesting and beneficial future research. Grower organizations and government agencies have databases of local agriculture, infrastructure, population demographics, and natural features that we have access to. This allows us to begin and complete spatial analysis using GIS much earlier in the project. In addition, we will be working with one experienced aggregation group and an emerging aggregation group to ensure the GIS information is relevant to producers. These projects lay an excellent foundation for us and our partners to research the local foods industries in the North Central Region and benefit both our producers and consumers. Our project will differ in that we will be working with Market Maker to obtain much of the raw grower demographic data that other projects had to collect on their own. We will also utilize more in depth GIS analysis than other projects were unable to complete.

    Project objectives:


    1. List of conditions that favor success of food hubs
    2. Criteria and process to establish a successful food hub
    3. Increased knowledge and awareness of these conditions and process among organizing local food groups
    4. Increased knowledge and awareness of how these conditions vary spatially and how the correct location can affect the success or failure of a proposed food hub


    • Dissertation
    • conference abstracts
    • Peer reviewed publications (forthcoming)
    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.