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Food hub could benefit Northfield if done right

The movement of local produce from farmers to institutions requires a community infrastructure that supports these relationships. For the last 10 years, Northfield residents have been considering whether they ought to create a “food hub” that would coordinate the aggregation, distribution and marketing of this local produce.

Food hubs are more than just a foodie trend; they give farmers faces and allow consumers to know from where their food comes and where their money goes. Being a part of the St. Olaf community, which could participate in this type of food hub, requires us to know how our college could restructure our relationship with the Northfield community’s local food producers.

Three Carleton environmental studies majors used their senior project as an opportunity to research whether or not the creation of a food hub would be an effective policy choice for Northfield. Casey Silver, Kristen Dooley and Sophie Daudon used existing food hubs and the Northfield Food Hub Alliance as a base for their discussion. They presented their findings at Just Food Co-op on April 9.

To make the food hub economically possible, institutions would have to shift money currently spent on non-local produce to local sources. This would require price agreements with farmers as well as the negotiation of appropriate certification. Whether buyers should contractually agree to a certain purchase before the season would also need to be considered. The farms would have to hold up a standard of environmental sustainability which was not specifically outlined in the presentation to justify the food hub purchases as environmentally beneficial. If the food hub could serve as a community space for classes on farming or food processing, it would maintain the relationships that have already been built between farmers and their buyers. Having a centralized distribution process would make it much easier for institutions to buy local produce. Additionally, the support from institutional purchasers could make local farms more economically stable, which would benefit Northfield as a whole. However, convenience cannot be the only criterion for success in this discussion.

One concern voiced by interviewees was the potential loss of relationships between farmers and buyers. Adding a middleman would prevent these face-to-face interactions from occurring. Last spring, I organized and participated in the St. Olaf Farmer Dinner. Students invited farmers who sell to St. Olaf to have dinner in the Caf. Getting to know some of the people responsible for what I eat makes me remember that nothing just appears in the Caf, an assumption perpetuated in our current food system.

Additionally, the Northfield Food Shelf currently receives donations of excess produce from farmers who know they will not be able to sell all of their produce. By expanding the market for excess through the food hub, the Food Shelf will lose these donations.

The combination of these outcomes both positive and negative makes me consider the role St. Olaf ought to play in the Northfield community. We should seek to support local farmers, and most importantly, we should support them as individuals. Buying locally keeps our purchasing power near Northfield, showing that we are invested in the place where we study.

Caring about this place also means being aware of who has access to what resources. While I hope that St. Olaf continues to seek out local vendors for Caf food items, it should never come at the cost of Food Shelf clients. If we assume that we have a right as purchasers to whatever we can afford, we increase the bubble of our community. Being an institution with flexible purchasing power means leaving space for those who have less choice, but still need healthy options.

Seasonal difference between institutional timing and harvest serves as the major barrier to institutional purchase of local produce. A proposed aspect of the food hub was a processing facility, something that would create jobs and allow for value-added products like jam that have longer shelf lives. Northfield could benefit from such a facility, especially one that offered classes to further connect members of this food system.

The food hub Northfield needs would respond to food and nutritional education, acknowledge institutions’ ability to support local farms and enable access on a larger scale, but it cannot separate those institutions from the larger community in which they are located.

Annelise Brandel-Tanis ’14 is from Chicago, Ill. She majors in studio art with a concentration in environmental studies.

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