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Capturing Synergies to Build Healthy Communities in the Southwest Borderlands

By: Gary Paul Nabhan, Sabores Sin Fronteras Foodways Alliance &, Kellogg Chair in Southwest Borderlands Food and Water Security, University of Arizona

The term food hub  has become used more and more frequently as one of several means to build and strengthen regional food systems. The USDA’s working definition of a food hub  is a “centrally located facility with a business management structure facilitating the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution, and/or marketing of locally/regionally produced foods.”

As I hear more and more food activists and their non-profit organizations proposing to situate a food hub in their regional foodshed as a solution to some of their current problems in food access, I wish to ask all of us to consider a few questions to help us refine our reasons for believing that the presence of a food hub will solve many of our problems:

  1. First, why are we proposing another intermediary step between food producers and consumers, institutions or chefs, when much of our efforts the last decade have been to shorten the value chain between food production and consumption?
  2. How will the presence of a food hub help farmers, ranchers, foragers, gleaners or fishers improve their time and money management so that they can more profitably focus on the tasks that they’ re best at accomplishing, while reducing the carbon foodprint of the production and transport of foodstuffs?
  3. How do chefs, cooks and especially low-income consumers benefit from the presence of a food hub, in terms of more affordable access to a greater diversity of fresh and artisanally-processed foods that may improve their family’s health status?
  4. Is a non-profit or co-op most capable of financially and socially managing a successful food hub, or is this a domain in which we need to find for-profit entrepreneurs with values similar to our own to raise the capital to build and manage a successful food hub?

Because the answers to these questions might be different in various communities—or in the same community at different stages in its development of a healthy food system—I do not want to presuppose what your answers to these questions may be. But I do want to propose that we can better design all future food hubs to specifically meet social, ecological and economic criteria for sustainability. In other words, our food hubs should be explicitly located, designed, built,  implemented and managed with tangible objectives in mind that will improve food justice, reduce energy consumption and other ecological impacts, and build livelihoods that provide producers, processors, managers and marketers with livable wages, and investors satisfactory “slow money” returns on their investments.

To achieve such objectives, I have a hunch that food hubs need to be more explicitly designed to capture the potential synergies among their multi-dimensional activities or operations. Unless maximizing such synergies is an explicit goal from the start, I believe it will be marginalized as an objective to the point of becoming a mere afterthought.

To take this idea out of the abstract and put it in concrete terms, consider the following ways that such synergies can be (and in some cases, are  being) captured at well-designed food hubs:

  1. For starters, imagine a food hub where different producers’ chiles, tomatoes, onions and herbs come out of their fields and are transported then aggregated at a food hub. A sorting process can then shunt this produce into at least three streams: a)the freshest with the best qualities for transportability can be delivered with minimal trimming and repackaging to local institutional food services, restaurants, markets and farm stands; b) the soon-to-perish or blemished can be processed into value-added storable products such as salsas, spaghetti sauces, chutneys and fermented foods, with the trimmed remains composted; and c) the produce with longer shelf life can be directed to food banks, shelters, pantries and soup kitchens.
  2. Now, take this concept and apply it to other domains at a food hub. Imagine a food hub that raises the capital from local investors not only to build a) a small scale meat processing facility, but another facility for b) capturing blood meal and bone meal for local sale as organic fertilizers; a butcher shop for c) smoking meats and using organs for sausages and more complex  charcuterie;  d) a tannery for processing hides; and e) a bio- diesel facility where rendered fat is processed into biofuels. Ken Meter of the Crossroads Center has already done a pilot study of how much more money would stay in a community if such micro-enterprises were co-located with a meat processing facility; Allan Nations at Stockman Grass Farmer has suggested that ranchers might gain from $30 to $50 more per head, even when not taking into account the bio- diesel value. Imagine bringing your cattle or sheep to be processed, and riding your vehicle back home on the energy from their rendered fat!
  3. Such scenarios are not pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, but pie-on-the-plate practical planning. There are already 27 coordinated food hubs operating or close to operating in the lower 48 states; one, the Intervale Food Hub in Burlington VT has been working to capture such synergies for at least a decade. Will Raap, the founder and driving force behind the Intervale Foundation once quipped that “we like waste,” as long as it presents opportunities for being used as energy or materials in a co-located micro-enterprise. The Intervale Compost Products processing facility began in 1988 and handles 20,000 tons of material in ways that generate revenue for the Food Hub’s other activities. The compost is sold in bags for domestic garden use, in small containers with seeds for urban window gardens, and is spread on adjacent land used for a Young Farmer Incubator Program, a Conservation Nursery,  a Community-Supported Agriculture project, and wholesale marketing and distribution of produce. Other microenterprises use the heat generated from the compost and from a scrapwood-fired energy generating station to heat enclosed food production and processing facilities ranging from fermented foods, fungi and artisanally-fermented brews.


In the Southwest Borderlands, a hub could be designed to co-locate a heritage grain milling with micro-breweries and bakeries which use the freshly-milled grain; and with livestock-finishing or composting that utilizes the spent (post-fermentation) grain remnants. A mesquite plantation could surround the facility as a windbreak or shelterbelt to mitigate airborne contaminants could provide mesquite pods to the mill to grind into a sweet but diabetes-preventing flour, with the bagasse fed to poultry; the leafy branchlets could be fed to goats and cattle; and the pruned or coppiced wood could fire bread and pizza ovens.

Because yields from each crop or variety grown in the semi-arid Southwest are so variable from year to year, a community kitchen could “even out” this production variability by producing value-added canned or frozen products that blend the yields of several different fruits or vegetables: salsas, chutneys, kimchees, or sauces. These fruit and vegetable products would be equivalent to the wine blends that all but replace true varietals in hotter, drier climates.

The ultimate synergy would be to design a perennial polyculture for arid lands that could be grown in a permaculture design in orchard-gardens immediately surrounding the food hub. The polyculture would consist of overstory plantings of olive trees and pine trees that yield edible pinyon nuts; in their understory, garlic and basil could be harvested in accordance with their seasons. In short, the Southwest Borderlands could produce the first Pesto Polyculture,  where all the ingredients for a good pesto paste could be harvested out of the same system, and processed in an adjacent community kitchen!

All kidding aside, my hypothesis is this: wherever we can find synergies among the multi-dimensional activities and operations of a food hub, more jobs and more affordable, health-enhancing foods will be generated. Now it’s time for us to go out into our food-producing landscapes and communities to field-test this hypothesis!


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