Food Hubs and Food Councils

Fractal Pattern in Nature

What is the relationship between a food council and a food hub? 

Food hubs have gained a lot of attention in recent years. Responding to this interest, the Wallace Center hosted the National Good Food Network (NGFN) Food Hub Collaboration Conference this March, drawing local food advocates from around the state and region.  Food hubs come in many shapes and sizes and have not been free from debate. In his article titled, “At What Cost? Food Hubs, Local Food and Walmart“, Charlie Jackson noted that “Government and nonprofits need to be cautious about getting into the business of running businesses where success is measured in pounds. They need to make sure their investments are not just moving product, but moving people.”  As Jackson’s article articulates, there is certainly debate around when food hubs are most useful and what they ultimately achieve.

Before embarking on a food hub effort, a feasibility study should be conducted to determine if this business model will be successful in a given community and address the underlying issues in the food system. Communities that are targeting a specific market are wise to look into whether other regions are also looking into a food hub to serve the same market.  For example, there are many communities targeting the Charlotte region – each with a food hub concept in mind.  Understanding how each effort will affect the market is an important part of ensuring success for a given food hub.

So how do food councils fit into all of this?  There are three main things to consider:  

The FOCUS of your council – Many local food councils have identified a mission that is broad and inclusive, in order to handle the changing needs of a food system and engage diverse stakeholders.  Developing a food hub may be very popular from a vibrant farms perspective, but may not engage those concerned with reducing obesity or using public land for community gardens?  A council that sets its aim too narrow, around a specific project, may confront conflict as other important food-related issues arise that a community wants to address.

But if the focus is that broad, how does a council ever get anything accomplished?

The FUNCTION of your council – This is perhaps the most critical decision for a council – and one that should be revisited every few years through a strategic planning process. If a council where to take on every possible project in a community, an endless stream of funding and community support would be necessary. Groups that already have established projects may see the council as competitive and disengage in the process, weakening the system as a whole.

For this reason, most councils aim to fill in gaps in the food system and assume roles not currently occupied by other groups.  The trend within emerging councils in North Carolina is to focus attention on sharing information, network development, and driving a policy agenda.  Mature councils may begin taking the lead on specific projects, but only once they have built the organizational capacity and credibility within the community to do so.

Defining both focus and function, and keeping them front of mind, are critical for council success. Generally speaking, the focus needs to be broad, while the functions need to be narrow.

Geographic SCOPE – Food councils are place – dependent. Community context should determine a council’s geographic scope. There are a few things to consider when making this decision.

1) Counties are established as units of the state.  Data tracked by agencies tends to be available at the county level, not at municipal levels.

2) County level staff, in departments such as Cooperative Extension, Soil & Water Conservation, Public Health, and the Department of Social Services are important voices to include in council work.

3) There are many different ways in which regions are defined, each having an effect on food. The NC Regional Council of Governments (COG) regions differ from health department regions which differ from cooperative extension regions.  A council which forms as a regional council may limit its ability to fully participate in initiatives that are defined by these external boundaries.

4)  Choosing a county level scope does not remove the possibility of strong regional partnerships. In fact, councils with a similar structure and process can provide an opportunity for strong cross-county collaboration.

5) As a general rule, people give energy when they believe it is to their benefit.  If people do not identify with the chosen region, if may be difficult to get participation across county lines.

There are three food councils in North Carolina that have multi-county focus: Upper PeeDee Farm and Food Council, Western North Carolina (WNC) Food Policy Council and Feast Down East.

The Upper PeeDee Council includes three counties and each county holds five seats. Recently, two of the three counties fell within a COG funded project, leaving a third of the council out of the picture.  The Upper PeeDee Council rotates meeting locations by county and has a leadership team of one person from each county.

The WNC Council exists in an area of low population and includes seven counties who have a tradition of working together. They have shared staff across the multiple counties and rely heavily on volunteer staff.

Feast Down East originally developed as a regional council. They are now reinvesting in creating county level councils to engage each community and build social capital – something that is difficult to do regionally.

 

Credit: Christy S. Day, Annie Martinie

 

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