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Context Matters: Visioning a Food Hub in Yolo and Solano Counties

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Danielle Boule, George Hubert, Anna Jensen, Alannah Kull, Julia Van Soelen Kim, Courtney Marshall, Kelsey Meagher and Thea Rittenhouse


This report was prepared by a team of graduate students at UC Davis in the spring of 2011 for the Yolo Ag and Food Alliance (AFA). The objective was to examine the plausibility of creating a food hub in Yolo and Solano Counties. To achieve this, the UC Davis research team explored recent trends in food hubs across the country and conducted a food system assessment of the two counties to provide a context for how and whether a food hub might be situated.

The report, “Context Matters: Visioning a Food Hub in Yolo and Solano Counties,” was designed to help the AFA understand the context of the local food system, create a common vision for a food hub, compile background information for future funding applications, and facilitate partnerships for the next stages in the design process for a food hub.

The food system assessment tracked historical trends and data in Yolo and Solano Counties for five sectors of the food system: production, processing, distribution, retail, and consumption. By analyzing these sectors, the report provided a context to better understand the viability of a possible food hub in the region. The report also included exercises and recommendations to help guide the AFA through a planning process.


Results

Over the academic quarter in spring 2011, the UC Davis research team analyzed segments of the food system in Yolo and Solano Counties in order to highlight potential opportunities for creating a successful food hub in the region. The counties could benefit from leveraging opportunities to create a more equitable, environmentally sound, and economically viable food system. The location of Yolo and Solano Counties lies amidst a rich agricultural area between two major urban centers, providing great opportunity to bring farm fresh produce to nearby markets in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Sacramento Region. Additionally, widespread interest in the consumption of local food may help to leverage the region's agricultural economy.

The UC Davis research team found a wide range of existing food hub models throughout the country, from centralized aggregation facilities to virtual models with no physical infrastructure. In each of these cases, the local food system context determined the ultimate success of the food hub. Likewise, in Yolo and Solano Counties, the success of a food hub will depend on an understanding of the AFA's vision and goals, the characteristics of the regional food system, the size and reach appropriate for the hub's context, and relationships between key stakeholders. A food hub's success will also be determined by a thorough understanding of current and past attempts to create aggregation and distribution infrastructure in the region.

The report suggested that the AFA should consider several key characteristics of the regional food system in designing a food hub. Most producers in the region are large-scale commodity growers who serve non-local markets. The region also contains a large number of small-scale growers (especially in Clarksburg and Capay Valley) who may benefit from a local food hub. A successful food hub could build upon existing agri-tourism efforts to create an identity for the counties. The current distribution industry handles mostly non-local food products and distribution companies face many complex barriers. It is not clear whether a food hub would overcome all of these barriers.

Nonetheless, the region is home to many existing and potential retail markets for local agricultural products, and local consumers are very interested in purchasing local food. Unfortunately, many local residents lack the resources to obtain fresh, healthy food. The presence of food deserts and high obesity rates indicate that local emergency food programs and entitlement programs have not fully addressed the nutritional needs of residents.

In the end, the UC Davis research team did not feel confident about the success of a potential food hub based on the data they collected and the significant financial risk associated with starting such a project. Indeed, several past attempts to create a food hub in this region were unsuccessful. Before investing in a food hub, the AFA might consider collaborating with other current efforts in Northern California or strengthening existing infrastructure for food distribution in this region. Given the significant risks associated with creating a new food hub, the AFA should first ensure that a food hub would address the major concerns of local producers, distributors, and consumers before agreeing to undertake this project.


Recommendations

Based on this research, the UC Davis research team made the following recommendations:

1.) Define and clarify a vision for a food hub. The AFA must agree upon its definition of a food hub, and this vision must align with the assets and needs of the local food system.

2.) Understand why past attempts to create alternative aggregation and distribution infrastructure in Yolo and Solano Counties have been unsuccessful, and identify current local food hub efforts.

3.) Understand the specific needs and interests of key stakeholders in a potential food hub, including small and mid-size farmers, processors, retailers, and consumers.

4.) Identify how processing will fit into an envisioned food hub.

5.) Identify cold storage space that is available for possible food aggregation in Yolo and Solano Counties.

6.) Understand current successes where distribution companies have sourced limited local produce and consider ways in which this may be strengthened and expanded.

7.) Explore the current barriers facing distribution companies, like road infrastructure, seasonality, price points, etc., and determine whether a food hub could overcome these challenges.

8.) Explore consumer interest in buying local products and retailer interest in advertising these items.

9.) Consider including mechanisms to assure affordable food access in a potential food hub, such as balancing sales between higher prices and volume for institutional buyers and subsidized prices for low-income consumers.

10.) Identify potential funding streams and other resources that will aid in planning and implementing a food hub (many of which are still being developed by the USDA).

Conclusions & Next Steps

Going forward, a much more concerted effort is necessary to clarify the collective vision for a food hub, understand past and current attempts at aggregation, processing, and distribution, and ensure adequate supply and demand for local products. While examples of successful food hubs exist across the country, a food hub may not be the appropriate solution for every challenge in the food system or for every region. Understanding the local context will be crucial in creating innovative solutions to the region's food system challenges.


View The Full Report Context Matters: Visioning a Food Hub in Yolo and Solano Counties,

   Published by The Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis


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Alannah Kull is a contributing writer based in Santa Cruz, CA. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems at UC Davis and has since worked on a wide variety of food systems projects as an organizer, writer, researcher and consultant. Alannah is pursuing a career in food systems research, community development, education and policy and in her free time she enjoys cooking, gardening and travel.

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