The Kenai Food Hub is growing. The online marketplace for Alaskan produce and other food products has two years of operations, 30 producers, a customer list of over 650 people, and deliveries in Soldotna, Homer and Seldovia under its belt and operations manager Robbi Mixon says they are ready to bring the show to Anchorage.
“The idea had been floating around Homer for years, with several people having the same idea,” says Mixon, who has also been director of the Homer Farmers Market for the last seven years. “Soldotna had a trial food hub in 2012, but the software was not so great. Fairbanks also has a small three farm hub.”
Food hubs are typically a centrally located facility (in this case a website with pick-up locations,) with a business management structure facilitating the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution, and/or marketing of locally/regionally produced food products, according to the USDA. They have exploded in popularity all over the country as a way to connect small farms with their customers more efficiently.
Aside from the Kenai (and now Anchorage) Food Hubs and the two programs Mixon mentions, the Bogard Food Hub is also scheduled to open in the Mat-Su this summer as a year-round distribution point and retail outlet for area farm products. The new Salt & Soil Marketplace operates similar to the Kenai Food Hub, but is based in Juneau.
“We were awarded a USDA grant to pilot a food hub for Homer,” Mixon explains on the origin of the Kenai hub. “While at a workshop on Food Hubs in Anchorage, we met some Soldotna folks who were interested in starting a food hub too. We expanded the scope of our project to include them.”
And now they’re coming North and expanding from the peninsula with the Anchorage Food Hub.
“There have been discussions in Anchorage about a food hub for while,” he says. “We are in a position to expand with minimal start up costs—we have the infrastructure (software, admin, systems,) in place. It’s a really replicable model. We can add more locations without the costs of research, design, planning, software fees, etc. We hope an expansion to Anchorage will help support the food hub as a whole, creating more revenue to keep all of our locations moving forward.”
At this point, Mixon says the Kenai Food Hub has a contract with Arctic Harvest to operate the Anchorage branch during the four month pilot program this summer.
“Since we are home based in Homer, we needed someone with expertise in the Anchorage/Palmer ag scene, along with the distribution know how. Kyla [Byers] was the perfect fit really,” Mixon explains.
While reception of the program has been great, it has hit one hurdle: production.
“There are lots of customers, but not quite enough diversity and volume to fill the needs of our customers. Many growers are selling through several different avenues (CSA, direct to restaurant, farmers market), so it’s a matter of producing more to support all these ways of selling.”
With a growing list of farmers markets and other outlets all scrambling to offer the same produce, it might be a challenge to meet demand. Alaska has built a strong network of locavore consumers competing for a very small crop, but food hubs could be an excellent way to encourage more people to start small farms operations. Food hubs often make their farms more profitable by marketing, transporting, and distributing crops effectively while reducing waste and preventing farm labor from being tied up at market stands several times per week.
“Small family farms are often reliant on direct sales to be viable and they work hard to make their products stand out, but traditional farmers markets require a lot of time and there is potential food waste from over harvesting,” Mixon said. “Our food hub is set up so farmers harvest to order (reducing harvest waste), and each farm’s individuality is preserved, they control the descriptions of their farm practices and their product descriptions, and their farm’s label goes on every item delivered.”
The food hub system also benefits customers by offering them one stop shopping while still being able to know their farmer (or fisherman,) and being able to reserve favorite or limited products ahead of time. Think of it as the best combination of single-farm share subscriptions and market shopping.
The program is hoping to convince more Southcentral producers that they’re the one for the distribution job this week. They’re hosting two producer meetings Thursday, June 29, at the Church of Love in Spenard at 9:00 a.m. and the UAF Cooperative Extension office in Palmer at 7:00 p.m. Mixon says anyone who is interested but can’t make the meeting can get in touch with him at email@example.com or 907-235-4068. The website also provides a checklist for potential producers and Mixon says the software the group uses is easy to learn, user-friendly, and offers instructional videos, but the in-person meetings are great for more detailed operational questions.
The Anchorage Food Hub will be available to take online orders starting July 8.