September 26, 2010
How did you come to form Food Hub?
FoodHub comes out of Ecotrust’s Food and Farms Program, and its evolution is entirely logical. Today you can’t turn on the TV and not see people talking about healthy food, local food, recalls, and so on. But ten years ago, however, when we first started hosting something called the “Farmer-Chef Connection” event, the conversation wasn’t as developed. We were sitting around with two or three chefs, and they were upset that few of them knew any farmers. So we sent out a broad invitation to farmers and chefs to make more direct connections, and over the years, the event grew to include not only farmers and chefs but also fishers, ranchers, dairy farmers, retail grocers, caterers and more. We also added a print directory of every buyer and seller, so that they could stay connected between events. The problem with the print directory, though, was that it was obsolete the day it was printed.
The Internet has become a powerful tool for connecting people and commerce. Over time, our print directory evolved into this new project, FoodHub. FoodHub is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and all the content is user-generated.
How does it work?
Food buyers and sellers of all kinds, some on five acres and some on 1,000, purchase one year memberships. Next, they create an online profile where they talk about their stories. For example, a farmer might talk about how many generations their family has been farming for and how many acres they are farming. They also talk about what days they deliver and who they distribute through. They list what products they have and their seasonality. Buyers, on the other hand, talk about who they are and what they would like to buy. We create a mirror image experience for the buyer and seller where they can see and be seen on their own terms and when it is convenient for them.
A dynamic part of FoodHub is called Marketplace. I liken it to a Craig’s List for the regional food community. There is real time posting, buying and selling, and the connections that are happening are astonishing. For example, if I look at what is posted right now, I see a focaccia company that is looking for organic butter, a farm called Autumn Harvest is letting people know they’ve got mini pumpkins and gourds, McMenamin’s Restaurant is looking for fresh chestnuts, and they need 10 to 15 pounds a week, Red Hat Melons is long on watermelons, and so on. Even school districts are now using the site to fill cafeteria orders.
Why is this type of service important to the food industry?
There is tremendous interest in supporting local, regional producers, and this is the perfect vehicle for doing that. I love FoodHub for that food buyer who really is just getting started. How do you find the partner that’s perfect for your specific situation? Two years ago a retail grocer was lamenting to me that she wanted to bring more regional products into her deli, but she couldn’t find them. Now she can. I can find shoes on Zappos.com and books on Amazon.com, so why can’t this same model work for finding food partners? By the way, I tested this theory one day and sat down and typed in "broccoli" into Google. I got 4.3 million results in .27 seconds with almost 600,000 results for the string “broccoli for sale in Oregon.” Who has time to wade through 600,000 results? FoodHub gives people access to a qualified community, and by narrowing the field of potential connections, you are no longer looking for that needle in a haystack.
How have you been able to merge commerce with sustainable business practices?
The entire underlying premise of FoodHub is that we want to see American farmers, ranchers and fishermen succeed. We want to create food security and food access, and we want consumers to have daily access to healthy, wonderfully produced food products, so there’s a sustainability ethic embedded into everything we do. Consumers are increasingly demanding to know where their food came from and who is producing it, and they want some assurances that it is good for them and their families. We love that SYSCO and FSA are carrying more farm identified products on their trucks; that’s what sustainability looks like. We want to reward food producers for stewarding their land, for their minimal use of pesticides, for their environmentally responsible production practices, and for treating workers well. This benefits the whole food community.
What can retailers learn from your success?
Retailers can learn that this is possible to buy local products. They can bring in products that their shoppers are increasingly asking for, and we make it easy to do this. They can support local and regional producers and the local food economy. This is not just a trend. Consumers want a story behind the dinner they serve their families, and we offer the resources that can help retailers tap into this growing consumer interest.
What is the future of FoodHub?
We expect that it will be self-sufficient within three years, and that Ecotrust will eventually spin off FoodHub into a separate entity. Once we have proven the model to be self sufficient and viable in this region, we will license the technology for use in other areas.
In upcoming issues, we will continue to feature interviews with companies that are taking innovative steps toward the creation of sustainable products and services. If you are interested in telling us more about what your company is doing please contact Allison Bloom at firstname.lastname@example.org.