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

2015 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 were: 1) Check in with members of an Advisory Committee and discuss findings; 2) Train graduate assistant; 3) Conduct Ethnographic Field School; 4) Begin IMPLAN analysis of economic impacts; 4) Continue interviewing stakeholders associated with food hubs; 5) Participate in Food Hub conference.


Research and outreach for this project began in August 2014 upon receipt of initial funding. The work done between April 2015 and April 2016 has focused on strengthening and establishing new relationships with food hub farmers, managers, and buyers throughout the state, conduct a summer field school, begin IMPLAN interviews and analysis, produce peer-reviewed articles, and participate in a national food hub conference. Over the next year 1) research will continue and be expanded to include other important wholesale buyers; 2) IMPLAN analysis will be completed; 3) workshops will be conducted at farmer meetings; and 5) appropriate and needed outreach resources and materials will be developed.

Advisory Board participants have been engaged through personal conversations due to time constraints and scheduling. At these meetings we continue to discuss project goals, interview questions, and future activities. We incorporated their recommendations into our research interview protocol and will continue to work with these individuals throughout the life of the project.

A graduate student has been recruited for this project to help with logistics and research during the field school and will help with the IMPLAN analysis. 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.

The Summer Field School was conducted in Albany Georgia and was administered by Georgia State during the Summer term. A six-week summer course that focused on social, cultural, economic aspects of sustainable, local food systems was developed to provide students methodological and theoretical training. The initial two weeks of class focused on lectures and instructors guided students to develop their own research questions and protocols. During weeks 3-5 students worked on farms and directly with food hub farmers. While working ‘as farmers’ students were required to keep notes, conduct interviews for the purpose of researching their proposed research project. The final two weeks consisted of report write-up and formal presentations. We partnered with the Southwest Georgia Project (SWGAP) in Albany Georgia. The SWGAP is a civil rights, non-profit organization that has been working with under-served farmers in Southwest Georgia since 1961. Among their many projects they are in the processes of developing a regional food hub aimed to increase farmer standards of living and provide local communities with increased access to fresh produce. Students worked with the SWGAP to study the operational side of the food hub and were each assigned a partner farmer to investigate how farmers work within a food hub. Four UGA and GSU students, three undergraduate and one graduate, attended the Food Hub field school in the summer of 2015. Three of the students had social science backgrounds and participated to gain a better understanding of the greater agricultural system and farm life in the southeastern US. The other student was part of an environmental science program and wanted to learn social science methodologies to bring the human dimension into her research. The farmers they were paired with were African American small-scale producers that farmed approximately 2-4 acres of land for direct and food hub sales. After the two weeks of literature review and research protocol development, students moved to Albany and worked with farmers in planting, harvesting, processing, and sales. They also attended workshops with the SWGAP and interviewed partner farmers, SWGAP staff, and other farmers in the community. These data were transcribed, analyzed, and reported upon during the final week of the course.

IMPLAN research was started during this phase of the project. We have started an IMPLAN data gathering with a long-standing food hub in the region. We sent out an email survey to the food hub clients from which we received 10 responses. We have also conducted 7 face-to-face interviews with farmers. In-depth interview with the food hub itself will be conducted once the other interviews have been completed. Delaying this interview will help us cross check our results. We are also communicating with another food hub and will begin IMPLAN with them during the final year.

General Interviews, participant observation, and surveys continue to be 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 and lasted 60 to 90 minutes and have been transcribed for content. Participant observation is also ongoing and occurs in different environments. We have worked with food hub related business for half a day to observe daily activities and worked with a local buyer as purchases were being made. In addition participant observation has involved partaking in various meetings and conferences where different food hub stakeholders shared advice, best practices, and discussed organizational protocol. A seven-question survey (see discussion below) was administered during a workshop at a national food hub conference to identify nascent food hubs in the Southeastern US, obstacles in development, and infrastructural needs. The following is a list of total individual interviews conducted, these numbers also include follow-up interviews.


Interviews (n=16)

Participant Observation

2 Surveys





Food hub managers








Other supporters




Preliminary research continues to 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


Urban Center



Mixed/Limited Resource

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 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”. Yet in some cases where the farmers are quite geographically isolated, they are less interested in maintaining buyer relationships and reported that they appreciate that the hub allows them to focus on growing the food instead of marketing it. 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 distributors. 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.

Conference workshop, in-depth interviews, participant observation at food hub businesses informed findings among food hub managers. We helped organize and participated in a workshop held at the 3rd Biannual Food Hub Conference held in Atlanta GA. The workshop titled, “Southeastern Food Hubs: Working Together to Build a Regional Food Economy” had 25 participants. The primary goal of the workshop was to coordinate activities among managers, local food supporters (buyers and NGOs), and producers to strengthen the southeast food system while building capacity within individual hubs. The workshop began with a mapping exercise to identify the operations and where local food hubs are in the region. A facilitated discussion followed to address topics that the group prioritized, such as: market issues, sourcing problems, and logistics. The final aspect of the workshop was to identify as a group any issues that would be helpful for us in the Southeast, prioritize those issues, and discuss a regional collaboration and communications plan to continue partnerships and identify resources that will build the capacity of the regional supply chain.

In response to a survey presented at the beginning of the session, 8 of the 25 participants reported that their own supply chain has medium to low functionality (only 1 participant reported high functionality). Problems in the supply chain include: weak local infrastructure, reliance on distributors with variable functionality, limited access to processing which restricts market opportunities, limited access to producers, problems finding secure distribution channels and processing, and fragmented infrastructure. The Mind Map exercise focused on six themes: processing, producer related issues, transportation, buyers and consumers, aggregation, and other (policy, sustainability). The three primary issues of concern focused on the need to develop logistics networks, the inclusion of people of color into food systems, and processing.

In addition to beginning to identify many of the barriers and obstacles of food hub development, this project has also aided in producing a journal article, products from the Young Scholar Program, and a workshop report:

  • Papavasiliou, F Furman, C. (submitted 2016) A Case for Domestic Field Schools: Integrating Ethnographic Teaching and Research in the Study of Sustainable Food Systems in Georgia General Anthropology submitted January 25, 2016.
  • Sumner, W. Papavasiliou, F. and Furman, C. Ethnography and Sustainable Agriculture Research: Investigating the Southwest Georgia Project Food Hub. Young Scholar Program Poster presented at the SSARE Administrative Council Meeting in August 2015.
  • Furman, C. Pavlin, S. Papavasiliou, F. Jones, T. Southeastern Food Hubs: Working Together to Build a Regional Food Economy. Workshop and Report developed for the 3rd Biannual Food Hub Conference Wallace Center March 30- April 1 2016.

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. This project explores cross-stakeholder (farmers, food hub managers, and buyers) dynamics and trains future scholars interested in local food systems. Student researchers that have participated in the field school, conducted their own research, and have and will continue to have the opportunity to assist in the research and analysis. These experiences 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.



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