I’m all for food hubs but food safety needs to be on the menu

As Ashley Chaifetz, public policy student at UNC-Chapel Hill wraps up her research on food pantries her data shows really passionate individuals (largely volunteer) who work within a food distribution system that’s not all that systematic or formal when it comes to food safety training. Kind of like the emerging world of food hubs.

The hippie, punk rock, F the man part of me loves the idea of grassroots, community-led food hubs – but my public health conscience leads me to believe that microbial food safety has to be part of the passion or hubs are doomed to fail at the first outbreak.03-25-10-food-hub

Laurie Davis, of Cornell Cooperative extension explains what food hubs are in the Press Republican:

Just what is a food hub?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines it as “a centrally located facility with a business management structure facilitating the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution, and/or marketing of locally/regionally produced food products.” This is a broad definition because a food hub can assume many different forms.

It might just be a building where local food is delivered, temporarily stored, then shipped back out, or longer term storage may be needed in the form of various temperature and humidity controlled coolers, freezers, etc.

There may be a commercial kitchen associated with the facility so that value-added products can be produced either by the farmers or by the food hub staff.

A storefront might be added so that the public can access food right at the hub instead of having all the food shipped out to other businesses.

It can act as a community supported agriculture (CSA) location or it might just focus on supplying restaurants, schools and institutions such as hospitals and prisons.

Another idea would be to include space for education, training producers and consumers in efficient methods of local food production and delivery. Its shape will be defined by the needs of the surrounding community.

Cornell Cooperative Extension recently received a grant to gather some preliminary information hopefully leading to the establishment of several food hubs in the Adirondack region. Or maybe not. The point of the study is to see how many farmers are interested and willing to sell to a food hub, what products they have and what their production capacity is.

While many think a food hub would be a great idea, few appear ready to participate. Many of our local farmers are struggling to make ends meet with full retail dollars and are understandably reluctant to shift toward wholesale pricing structures or even something in between. For a food hub to work, producers and consumers all need to be on board.

And food safety, from suppliers through distribution has to be valued.

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is an associate professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.