Food hubs: bringing people together and revaluing food

By Heather McClure, Aber Food Surplus

The idea of creating food hubs appeared in numerous different contexts at the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference in Aberystwyth last year. I hope to share a few thoughts on why I find food hubs an exciting way of working towards a more sustainable food system.

The word ‘hub’ implies bringing people together, and a ‘food hub’ suggests that people come together because of food. Driven by progressive organisations working towards more social and environmentally minded enterprises, food hubs have been gaining popularity in the UK over the last 10 years. This shows that people are inspired to work together, and that there is a desire for change towards a more sustainable food system.

Bringing people together is a central principle of a food hub

But what is a food hub, and what can it do? At the Conference,  people suggested many roles. All were presented as part of a solution and part of an opportunity for different aspects of our food system to flourish and become more sustainable.

Here is a summary of the different type of food hubs I heard being discussed:

  • ‘Producer Hubs’ – Supporting local smaller scale food producers to reach a market.
  • ‘Procurement Hubs’ – A focus on bringing in food to sell in quantity to institutions, offices, schools or hospitals.
  • ‘Redistribution / Food Surplus Hubs’ – there are lots of these popping up around the UK to deal with the environmental issue of supermarket and business food waste
  • ‘Waste Recovery / Value Hubs’ – A similar idea to a food surplus hub, but perhaps more focused on innovation and large-scale waste, to be used for creating a more ‘closed loop’ and circular food system. This could involve a focus on secondary products or by-products.
  • ‘Seed Hubs/ libraries’ – Challenging the ownership of seeds, building a more genetically diverse and resilient local seed base.
  • ‘Skill sharing hubs’ – small scale caterers or producers of manufactured foods can share the infrastructure and kitchen resources to operate self-employed businesses. These spaces can also be used for upskilling people in cooking.

This wide range of issues highlights what people want from our food system. Food hubs can enable more local decision-making powers surrounding food trade, and where our food comes from – an integral aspect of a healthy food system, where citizens have affordable access to food produced in balance with nature.

Furthermore, using these hubs, food does not go through the same valuing / de-valuing processes that it goes through in retail chains or institutional processes. Its worth is informed by people closer to where it is grown and eaten. Perhaps the food hub model of a food system could reflect the truer value of food? Where bringing people together within a transparent food system could showcase the enormous unaccounted value and power of food and food production, and produce a more circular and participatory food system.

The ECO Food Sharing Hub, Aberystwyth

In Aberystwyth, we have had an ECO Food Sharing Hub since March 2019. It is based in a former greengrocer’s shop on a busy shopping street, and was developed jointly by the community and the Aber Food Surplus project. Aber Food Surplus is a food waste redistribution project that started from conversations involving supermarkets, churches, community gardens, bakers, farmers, food banks, students, and charities who could see the community value that sharing food could foster. It was an idea designed in a ‘best fit approach’ to make food ‘waste’ available to the community – where it was ultimately intended to be all along – not in landfill bins!  

A shop window for doing things differently, on a busy street

Aber Food Surplus was founded in 2016, and the project continually highlights a strong desire for change in both our food system and our local area. There is a core team of three staff members and 35 volunteers that collect and redistribute the surplus food. This means the hub is always bustling. There is a kitchen where surplus food can be cooked up for community events, and a community fridge where food surplus is shared. The hub space aims to support knowledge sharing, entrepreneurialism, sustainability, and conversations about our food system. It also hosts the Aber Food Coop, which provides a weekly box of fresh produce to its members.

The ECO Food Sharing Hub is stimulating conversations about what else can be achieved by working together, and how else we can become closer to our food and food producers – a fundamental part of the community here in rural Wales. Through the conversations at our food hub we are evolving every day to become a town that has more knowledge and control over its food supply.

Food hubs have the potential to make change! If you want to be part of this conversation please get in touch. And if you are a grower or producer local to Aberystwyth looking to shorten your food supply chain please get in touch– our Aber Food Coop would be keen to meet you, visit your farm, advertise you, and sell your produce on a weekly basis!

Heather McClure is a director of Aber Food Surplus. She is passionate about the role of food in connecting us to nature, and hopes to see Aberystwyth growing more food and become a wonderful example of a zero food waste town in the near future. This year she is particularly excited to see how aubergines grow.

A food hub on the Heart of Wales railway line

By Pamela Mason

Drive into Llandeilo Station and you could be mistaken for thinking you’d spotted a goods wagon: the sort of wagon that used to transport some of our food around Britain before the loss of much of our railway infrastructure more than half a century ago. Given that this wooden building stays put, its link with food and transportation of food might not cross your mind. Unless you happened to know it is the home of the Black Mountain Food Hub.

The Black Mountain Food Hub was the first to book space in the building when it opened in 2016 for local social enterprises and businesses. Set up as a Community Interest Company (CIC), the Black Mountain Food Hub has four directors: Joanna Dornan, James Scrivens, Ella Gibbs and Sara Tommerup. Joanna has lots of experience with the Dean Forest Food Hub which has been established for four years and the Black Mountain Food Hub is run along the same lines, that is, as an online farmers market using the Open Food Network platform. “We know this works,” says Joanna.

The idea is that customers can order online anytime from Wednesday to Tuesday midnight and then collect their order from the Station Hub on the following Friday. Alternatively, the hub offers delivery between Llandeilo and Llandovery every Friday afternoon. The hub currently has 17 local producers and the number of weekly customers is about the same. Next year the aim is to grow the regular customer base to 30. People are also encouraged to support the food hub by becoming seed group members, which involves committing to spending £20 a month for a year. The aim with this is to help the food hub get better established and grow. It’s a struggle as it’s hard to change mindsets and habits around food shopping.black mountain logo

Whilst much of the work depends on volunteers, the hub also employs a part-time co-ordinator, Candace Browne, who has extensive experience in supporting and advising farmers so is well placed to work with the hub’s producers. Candace explains that to help maintain customer support the hub also makes available wholefood grocery items such as flour, rice, beans and pulses.

When the hub started there was no vegetable producer in the locality. Organic vegetables were delivered by train to Llandeilo from a grower on Gower. This year, Joanna tells me, they have developed a Fferm Glytwaith or Patchwork Farm which involves the co-ordination of a number of local experienced growers committed to growing good quality fruit and vegetables organically. Each grower takes on two or three varieties each season. In winter, the hub buys in organic vegetables, again to help retain customers throughout the year.

Another aim of the food hub is to reach out more to households on low incomes. Work is beginning with schools to promote the hub and thinking is taking place about the possibility of using the Healthy Start scheme to facilitate access to fresh, local food for people on low incomes.

The need for systemic change in the food system is well recognised by the food hub and an application for LEADER funding, which has successfully got through to the second round, has been made to develop a sustainable food network in the Towy Valley with the aim of shortening supply chains, getting more money to producers and building a thriving local system within the area. The project intends to use an approach called Adaptive Co-Management, which is designed to facilitate leadership, sense of ownership and knowledge sharing with the adaptive capacity to withstand uncertainties. Joanna says it’s an agile approach, which has been shown to be effective in complex environments in that it enables decisions to made quickly and effectively.

If the bid for funding is successful, the group will be looking for local people with the drive to make a difference to the local food economy in the Towy Valley. They will need to be open to learning new ways of working, gaining new skills and thinking in a new paradigm. It sounds very exciting. Local people in the Towy Valley with an interest in food – watch this space.

Pamela Mason is a nutritionist and author based in Monmouthshire. See sustainablediets.co.uk