Food Hubs and the Regional Food System: Refining Our Understanding of Best Practices from Foodsheds to Operations

2014 Annual Report for LS13-256

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2013: $230,000.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2017
Region: Southern
State: Georgia
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Carrie Furman
University of Georgia Crop and Soil Sciences Department

Food Hubs and the Regional Food System: Refining Our Understanding of Best Practices from Foodsheds to Operations


Food hub models in Georgia vary due to differences in geography, grower characteristics, mission, infrastructure available, business plan, and markets targeted. Due to this, specific food hub needs and lessons learned will differ when compared across these variables. This project utilizes input from growers, food hub managers, and buyers from qualitative and quantitative data to better understand this diversity. This systems research will document lessons, innovations and solutions of extant food hubs, and generate guidelines and best practices for further food hub creation. Results will be shared with a wide audience through workshops, presentations, and publications.

Objectives/Performance Targets

The objectives of the Food Hubs and the Regional Food System: Refining Our Understanding of Best Practices from Foodsheds to Operations for the initial year were: 1) Meet with members of an Advisory Committee and refine interview guide; 2) Recruit and train graduate assistant; 3) Plan for Ethnographic Field School; 4) Begin IMPLAN analysis of economic impacts; 4) Begin interviewing stakeholders associated with food hubs; 5) Participate in Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SAWG) Food Hub Learning Network; 6) Interactive map development


Research and outreach for this project began in August 2014 upon receipt of initial funding. The primary work done between August 2014 and April 2015 has been to strengthen and establish relationships with food hub farmers, managers, and buyers throughout the state, develop a research protocol and obtain certification from institutional internal review boards at UGA, GSU, and MSU, plan for the summer field schools, and produce peer-reviewed articles and presentations. Over the next two years 1) this initial research will continue and be expanded to include other important wholesale buyers; 2) IMPLAN analysis will be conducted; 3) two field schools will be developed and executed; 4) workshops will be conducted at farmer meetings; and 5) outreach resources and materials will be developed.


Advisory Board participants have been engaged in individual conversations at this point in the process, due to time constraints and scheduling. At these meetings we discussed project goals, interview questions, and outlined activities. We have incorporated their recommendations into our research interview protocol and will continue to work with these individuals throughout the life of the project. A small invited facebook group of these and other interested individuals has also been developed to facilitate communication. In addition project members attended food hub related sessions at the 2014 and 2015 SSAWG Conferences and participating the food hub working group and conference calls.


A graduate student has been recruited for this project to help with logistics and research during the field school. This student has an extensive background in local food production and marketing in Georgia and is currently seeking a PhD in food hub related studies.


Field School development has included: interviews, face-to-face visits, and conference calls with the chosen Food hub in southwest Georgia. These interactions have focused on understanding the specific needs and expectations of the host farmers and organizing the logistical aspects of working in this region. The field school has been registered at Georgia State University, the host University, syllabus, course materials have been developed, and the course is being advertised at the host and local universities. The field school will occur over six weeks during the summer session. Activities will include 1) a one week instruction on methods and discussion of readings related to sustainable agriculture, regional food systems, and anthropological theory; 2) three weeks of fieldwork with farmers and an associated food hub in southwest Georgia; and 3) two weeks of directed data analysis and the presentation of a final research paper.


In-depth research activities associated with this project include IMPLAN analysis, participant observation at food hubs, participant observations at workshops, and interviews with stakeholders involved in food hubs or local food aggregation businesses. IMPLAN analysis is in its preliminary stage. The survey guide has been developed and vetted by the Internal Review Board at the partnering universities. Since the majority of the food hubs are still in their initial planning stages, much of this research will be conducted in the second half of the project.


Interviews, participant observation, and surveys are being conducted with food hub stakeholders (see table below) including growers, food hub managers, food hub product buyers, and other supporters of food hubs (e.g., extension agents, NGO representatives, etc.). Interviews were conducted primarily in person (one was a phone interview) and lasted 60 to 90 minutes and have been transcribed for content. Participant observation has included two separate activities. The first pertains to working with a person at their food hub related business for half a day to observe daily activities. The second activity involved partaking in a total of three meetings and conferences where different food hub stakeholders shared advice, best practices, and discussed organizational protocol. A five-question survey (see discussion below) was administered at one of these food hub workshops to identify nascent food hubs in Georgia, obstacles in development, and infrastructural needs.



Interviews (n=16)

Participant Observation (n=2)

Surveys (n=14)





Food hub managers








Other supporters





Preliminary research has focused on four food hubs in Georgia. To protect identity, these businesses will remain anonymous. These food hubs are at different stages of development and have diverse organizational missions, structures, and grower characteristics. Grower characteristics refer to the type of business relationship the food hub has with the grower and/or the type of farmer they are targeting for their food hub. In some cases the food hubs buy products from a wide variety of independent growers that do not have a specific commitment to the food hub. In other cases the growers are more directly connected to the food hub, having some form of membership and provide regular products. The less established food hubs are still determining their relationship with their growers, but in one case they are specifically targeting limited resource growers for their food hub.



Full years in operation

Location of food hub business

Business structure

Primary market

Grower characteristics

FH #1


Urban center




FH #2




Direct to Consumer


FH #3




Farm to School

Limited resource

FH #4








Findings are preliminary, yet have already yielded information relative to food hub development in the state. Across all sectors, stakeholders are finding the term ‘food hub’ to be confusing, even to those who are operating a food hub like businesses. Many feel that the term is too inclusive and therefore does not accurately represent the types of activities they are interested in or currently pursuing. A few have asked for a more detailed definition or new terms that reflect the diversity of businesses that exist. Across sectors we also found the need for more stakeholder communication. Farmers and food hub managers (no matter the food hub structure) report that they would benefit from working together to coordinate production to meet the needs of diverse markets. Transparency about pricing and sourcing by the food hub businesses and how this relates to their mission will better ensure the development of lasting relationships with producers and buyers. In addition, across all sectors the facilitation of open communication concerning market saturation and competition could help strengthen the local food networks that are currently forming.


Interviews with 7 farmers have revealed both a growing interest in food hub type businesses as well as some drawbacks to these systems. The farmers we interviewed did not rely primarily on food hub sales, but used food hubs as a way to increase income security. The biggest benefit identified, from the farmers’ perspective, is the increase in market diversity a food hub offers. Farmers reported that they appreciated having a reliable place to take surplus products without hassle when their more ‘traditional’ markets (CSA, farmers’ market, or through their own wholesale contacts) failed to absorb the totality of their product. Growers chose to work with food hubs that have a specific set of characteristics, including: sharing the same mission or set of ethics, understanding the value of their product, and marketing the product under the farm name. This final aspect is important as growers do not what to lose the connection they have established with buyers even when selling though a “middle-man”. Farmers also appreciated a food hub manager that was transparent about how products where priced and where their product was sold. The latter issue reflects a growing concern regarding “green-washing” or when restaurants and other establishments purport to sell farm direct products but my not do so on a regular basis. Finally, food hub location was also a deciding factor for farmers. Farmers reported that, unless a food hub is willing to pick up their products from the farm, the food hub needs to be relatively close to the farm and flexible with drop off times.


To date research among food hub product buyers has focused on chefs. This population was chosen primarily because the food hubs in this study are selling primarily to or have longstanding relationships with restaurants. The chefs represented in this research thus far actively seek local product and are willing to work extensively with suppliers at different scales, from individual growers to larger distributers. Data was gathered through interviews and at local workshops that convened chefs to talk about local food procurement and where chefs were advising farmers on how to sell to restaurants. Chefs all greatly appreciate the work that goes into food production and value the product that comes to them. Their primary concerns have to do with availability and scheduling. They have noted that all of the farmers in the region seem to have similar availability lists, and because of this, their desire to spread purchases out among those farmers becomes difficult to achieve. They would like to work with farmers to discuss the types of product they are interested in and perhaps create formal commitments to buy specific items. However, due to small profit margins, they often cannot contract goods ahead of time. They also advised that farmers and hubs need to understand restaurants schedules, arrive for delivery during slower times of the day and also have an idea of wholesale prices. Finally the chefs lamented that while they are willing to pay a premium for local product there is a limit to how much they can budget for these purchases and are at times restricted by the demands of restaurant owners.


Research among food hub managers has included in-depth interviews (n=4) and participant observation at food hub businesses and during conference workshops. In addition a survey was administered at the 2015 Georgia Organics conference during a food hub workshop. This workshop was designed to help those interested in food hubs and those that already run a food hub business. At its maximum occupancy the workshop had 22 people in attendance, 14 individuals filled out at least part of our survey and a majority were either food hub managers are interested in supporting the development of a food hub. Findings from the survey mirror those of interviews and participant observation. Lessons learned from food hub managers’ interviews and surveys revealed a number of concerns as well as discussions concerning food hub successes. The food hub managers that have participated in this research all have an ethical mission as part of their business design. The majority are striving to either increase locally grown fresh products in their community, increase farmer standard of living, or have a broader goal of changing the regional food system. This focus on an ethical mission can at times contradict the economic sustainability of the business. All of the food hubs reported struggling with maintaining sustainability across social, economic, and ecological missions simultaneously. Those food hubs that are based in rural regions, are small, or have limited resources are struggling more acutely to balance the needs of paying their farmers a fair wage while also ensuring that the product prices are not beyond the reach of their intended customers. Food hubs are also having a difficult time finding the right infrastructure, enough loyal producers, and enough land for those producers to either grow or start their businesses. They also reported a need to develop specialized training that will help interested producers scale-up or learn to coordinate production for the wholesale market. Food hub managers also reported the need for more training and access to start-up capital to assist new and emerging food hubs.


In addition to beginning to identify many of the barriers and obstacles of food hub development, this project has also aided in producing a peer-reviewed article for the Journal of Extension (JOE) and a presentation at the National Anthropological Association Annual Meeting:


  • Munden-Dixon, K. Furman, C. Gaskin, J. and Staples, K. (in press) Assisting the small and mid-size farmers increase their access to markets: A case study of an Extension program to facilitate food hubs in Georgia, US JOE


  • Furman, C. Papavasiliou, F. Walters, L. Kurtz, H. Gaskin, J. (2014) Local food 2.0 or devil in disguise? Locating food hubs within the local food network. In, Small-scale, big data: a network science approach to producing anthropology in small-scale food systems. American Anthropological Association meeting in Washington D.C., December 2-7, 2014

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

The in-depth understanding of food hub construction, organization, and dynamics will greatly contribute to the sustainable growth of locally produced foods in Georgia and the greater southeastern US. In the next two years, this project will further explore cross-stakeholder (farmers, food hub managers, and buyers) dynamics and train future scholars interested in local food systems through two summer field schools focusing on different food hub models in Georgia. Student researchers will be placed on farms and at food hub centers as workers. The experience will contribute to the overall research project by providing a fine-grained understanding of the multiple and complex interactions between food hub stakeholders and their various motivations, goals, adversities and synergies, while also training students in research methods and issues surrounding sustainable food systems.


Data gathered from interviews, surveys, and participant observation indicate the need for sustained communication across all stakeholder groups. To help facilitate communication and the growth of new and emerging businesses this project is working to develop a resource that will help grow local food businesses in Georgia by providing a web-based, interactive, and dynamic Georgia map with geo-referenced information on infrastructure and other key resources. Farmers would use the resource to find other farmers in their area that wish to aggregate production for wholesale and locate markets interested in buying local products. Entrepreneurs who wish to start a local food business could use the map to assess where the markets are located, where the suppliers are located, and finally identify necessary infrastructure. Buyers would use the map to locate other business that aggregate product or to identify individual farmers in their area.


Dr. Lurleen Walters

[email protected]
Assistant Professor
Mississippi State University
P.O. Box 5187
Mississippi State,, MS 39762
Julia Gaskin

[email protected]
Sustainable Agriculture Coordinator
University of Georgia Crop and Soil Sciences Department
3111 Miller Plant Sciences Building?Athens
Athens, GA 30602
Dr. Hilda Kurtz

[email protected]
Associate Professor
Department of Geography, University of Georgia
204 GGY Building
Athens, GA 30602
Dr. Faidra Papavasiliou

[email protected]
Department of Anthropology, Georgia State University
33 Gilmer Street, Sparks Hall 335
Atlanta, GA 30303