Beginning in January, the University of Vermont will offer a first-of-its kind professional certificate in food hub management.
Food hubs are organizations that help connect farmers with restaurants and stores to sell their food, and they’ve been growing in popularity in recent years.
Ann Karlen will be one of the faculty members of the new program. She’s the founding director of the group Fair Food in Philadelphia, and says food hubs are especially important to farmers who need a distributor for selling to larger markets.
“There’s so many wonderful relationships between individual growers and, let’s say, a white table cloth restaurant, where specialty products are really highlighted," Karlen says. "But when we start to move into retail stores, grocery stores and institutions like hospitals and colleges or elder care facilities it really becomes unwieldy for individual growers to sell into that market.”
UVM, whose students have access to local food "subscriptions" thanks to a partnership with the Intervale Food Hub, isn't alone in recognizing the need for stronger food hubs. On Sept. 29, the United States Department of Agriculture announced over $52 million in grants to grow local and organic food economies, including farmers markets, farm-to-institution activities and food hubs.
"These Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program grants provide farmers and ranchers around the country with tools to reach consumers, strengthen ties between urban and rural communities, and help meet the growing demand for locally and regionally produced food," said Anne Alonzo, administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) in a statement.
In an interview with the New York Times, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack noted that food hubs hire about 20 people on average.
"Small and medium-sized operations end up helping to generate more employment than commercial operations because of their different distribution systems and their local natures," Vilsack said.
Meanwhile, Ann Karlen says the professional certificate in food hub management offered by UVM is critical because many of the skills needed in retail businesses are equally important in running a successful food hub.
“Inventory management, and marketing and sales and finance, and all the things you need to run a business … and it has been challenging for many of those food hubs, as they’ve grown, to find those people.”
Karlen adds that all of the courses in the UVM food hub management program will be taught by food hub practitioners.