Farmer Cooperatives and Food Hubs
Farmers may pool their resources to develop a group distribution strategy. This may take the form of a producer cooperative, a food hub supported by nonprofit or government partners, or other network that supports the marketing, aggregation and distribution of farm products.
- Buying from a farmers' cooperative or food hub helps the school food service director reduce the time spent on the administrative tasks involved in placing and receiving orders, invoicing and payment. In this way, ordering is done through one person representing multiple farmers and in some cases, one delivery is made for multiple farmers.
- Another advantage is that cooperatives or food hubs can generally offer a wider variety of produce and a more consistent supply than one individual farmer.
- Some farmer cooperatives and food hubs have also been able to purchase cold storage facilities, a truck for delivery, and processing facilities to produce value-added products. This is a particularly helpful strategy in colder climates with a limited growing season, and is a benefit for food service staff, as they greatly appreciate receiving a bag of broccoli florets instead of a whole head of broccoli. Many school district food services do not have the labor or equipment necessary to do this kind of minimal processing.
The biggest disadvantage is that farmer networks, cooperatives or otherwise, do not exist in all regions of the country. Some new farmer networks and cooperatives have been formed as a result of the demand from institutional sales, but their numbers are limited. This model also limits contact with the individual farmers growing for the schools.
In a food hub model, it is common for hub staff, frequently employed by a non-profit organization, to handle some of the administrative tasks. One person may act on behalf of farmers, taking orders from food service and then contacting farmers to fill them. The school district would then send one invoice to the intermediary person who would then handle the paperwork.