Hunting for food chain champions

Jim Barham is looking for food chain champions.

Doesn’t sound too sexy, but he’s convinced that as demand for local food rises and bottlenecks form in the aggregation and distribution of produce, people with imagination, relationships with retailers and growers, and good business models — food chain champions — can make a big difference.

Barham is an economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., compiling a study on how “food hubs” are playing an increasing role in bringing local food to consumers. He’s identified some 60 to 90 around the country and is looking for more. I posted something last week on some preliminary information he put out, and Monday we chatted on the phone.

The champions he seeks can operate in a variety of ways, Barham said. Some “pull” local food into the market, connecting with growers and leveraging relationships with grocers. Others organize around the farmers themselves and “push” food into the distribution system. Without them, local food will have trouble meeting the demand.

In the Twin Cities, the Wedge Co-op-owned Co-op Partners Warehouse is an example of an organization pulling food into the market and distributing it to co-ops and others. Big River in Marine on St. Croix is more on the pushing end, although as a non-profit, it has found distribution can detract from its central mission of training immigrant farmers.

As often as not, these successful food hubs spring from a person, a champion, who becomes a driver of change.

As I pointed out last week, Barham has looked at this phenomenon across the country and identified a concentration of food hubs in the area where Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin converge. That’s due, he says, to the fact that the land is suited for small farms and to the proximity of population centers like the Twin Cities, Madison and Milwaukee.

Look for a fuller report from the USDA on local food distribution in March and then a full food-hub study in September.

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