regional food systems – a look ahead or a look back?

History provides a useful perspective on modern society: where we have been does matter. While current conditions (such as prices, tastes and preferences, technology, inputs) are clearly influential, previous choices are equally important. Economic historians refer to this phenomenon as “path dependence.”

Looking back on the history of food systems in the US (a topic that is near and dear to my heart), it is evident that we can roughly characterize the periods in the following way. First, food production was predominantly self sufficient, where most food was raised for personal use. This period was followed by a movement to partial sufficiency, where some products were produced on farm, and others bought at a general store. As urbanization increased, true market economies developed, along with regional food systems, where food was produced for the urban population on bands of farmland surrounding cities. Technological innovation, partly in the form of refrigeration and transportation, created the infrastructure for the emergence of a national food system. (I am not enough of a historian to date these periods!)

In a sense, regional food systems can be thought of as a return to “the good old days.” But the impetus for today’s regional food systems differs from earlier periods, in that the current movement is based on a conscious creation of a food system that supports social goals, such as agriculture of the middle, healthy food access, farmland preservation, and sustainable production, as well as profits for all businesses involved. In the end, profitability determines long run viability (well, it is an important piece, at least, but probably not the only one). Regional food hubs provide a way for local/regional buyers and sellers to meet in the market, and buy and sell food outside of the traditional market channels.

A new report by Adam Diamond and James Barham of the Agricultural Marketing Service presents case studies of different regional food hubs around the country. The authors present several models for successful hubs (retail driven, consumer driven, producer driven and nonprofit driven). Key factors identified as essential for food hub success are: finding and funding the appropriate level of infrastructure investment, how to coordinate farmer production, preserving identity of the products being handled, and management of supply chain logistics. The case studies of successful hubs provide more insight into different approaches taken by hubs.

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