When I first moved to Bethlehem, I was disappointed at how far away my favorite restaurants were from where I was living. Coming from a town with more fast food chains than local restaurants, I was accustomed to picking up Chipotle on my way home from school or stopping at Panera before heading to a friend’s house. Living on Lehigh University’s campus as a first year student, the places I was accustomed to dining at seemed a world away, even though they were just a few miles from me.
What started out as an annoyance turned into a blessing as I learned more about the local food scene in the Lehigh Valley. Instead of driving to get fast food, I could walk to a local cafe and spend the afternoon catching up on work or meet up with friends at a local restaurant for dinner.
Though I adore the Lehigh Valley food scene, I am surprised at the lack of local food served in most restaurants. Some restaurants are making efforts to incorporate more local foods, and a few of these establishments are highlighted as Cafés & Restaurants Working Towards Sustainability (see page 44).
Many know the Valley is home to numerous smaller-scale farms that use sustainable farming practices, such as non-GMO or organic growing methods. Despite access to healthy and nutritious foods within a short distance, many local restaurants depend on food grown hundreds or thousands of miles away under less-sustainable growing methods that involve chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.
While some foods cannot be grown in the Lehigh Valley because of the climate, many foods, including a variety of fruits, vegetables, eggs, meats, and cheeses, are available year round. Although growing seasons may limit the availability of specific fruits and vegetables, there is usually a variety of fresh produce available at any given time in the Valley. In fact, many foods are produced and sold year round through local farmers markets or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) that allow customers to purchase directly from the grower.
A huge barrier to local food sourcing is that many local farmers do not have wholesale operations because they lack the volume and consistent supply of food required by larger food operations like hospitals, universities, schools, restaurants, or grocery stores. Additionally, large scale sourcing of food requires services local farms may not be able to provide such as storing, cleaning, cutting, canning, and transporting.
Also, some farmers are opposed to selling in wholesale markets because of concerns about pricing. Often wholesale involves selling products in bulk for a price that is less per item when compared to retail sales. While this is a valid concern, often these prices are offset, at least partially, by not having to staff farmers markets or pack CSAs.
Although the lack of wholesale capacity is difficult for individual small farms to overcome, there is a growing, national movement of small farms banding together to sell their products from food aggregation hubs. Instead of individual farms having to handle growing, packaging, selling, and transporting, the farmers focus on farming, and the food hub allows the farmers the volume and consistency needed to break into larger markets. This also creates predictability of demand, allowing farmers to better understand what to grow and how much they need to grow each year.
Additionally, food hubs benefit institutions that are interested in sourcing local foods. For example, schools may want to purchase apples locally, but few small scale farms have the capacity to fill the order. With the help of a food hub, the school district does not have to hold apple contracts with multiple farms because the food hub aggregates the apples from several local farms and fills the order.
While each food hub has unique operations, the basic model is the same. Farmers work on their farms, and once their products are ready the farmer delivers them to a drop-off point that collects from multiple farms in the area. Many food hubs have refrigeration capabilities and commercial kitchens for value enhanced processing. From there, the food hub distributes the products to customers like restaurants, grocery stores, and cafeterias.
Food hubs also benefit the community in a number of ways. Jobs are created to sort, clean, and transport the products held at the hub. According to a study from Cornell and the USDA, the average food hub creates 14 new jobs for the local economy. Furthermore, if the food hub sells to local eateries, the profits from those sales tend to stay in the community.* This allows the local economy to expand as money is spent and collected in the community.
Another benefit of aggregation is that it expands access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Without food aggregation, many farmers have limited direct sales to the community through programs like farmers markets. In this case, if people want fresh, local foods they need to know when and where the farmers market is, and this is often an extra trip as many people shop at supermarkets. Moreover, the hours and location of the farmers market may not be accessible to those who work full time or multiple jobs, as well as those without access to transportation. Food hubs can sell to corner stores and grocery stores, allowing customers to make one, convenient stop to pick up fresh food on the way home. Additionally, when food hubs sell to local eateries and schools, a larger proportion of the community accesses fresh foods without specifically seeking them out.
Based upon the potential benefits of food aggregation hubs, the numerous local farms, and the multiple markets in the area, the Lehigh Valley’ should explore possibilities for investing in a food hub.
* Data available on USDA website
Jessie is a grad student in Lehigh’s Environmental Policy Design program
and is completing an Alliance internship on the food system in the Lehigh Valley.
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