The Diaspora Vision: Or, What a Social Enterprise Food Hub Looks Like

Back when i was working on my city & regional planning degree at UC Berkeley, finding the intersection between agricultural sourcing and urban planning, I stumbled upon the body of literature covering the concept of food hubs. At their core, food hubs are institutions that bring products from a number of farms together in one place for the purposes of aggregation, co-processing, marketing work, and gaining access for farmers who otherwise produce too much to scale at farmers markets or for whom the need of institutional purchasers is necessary (think: flour, beans, and other bulk dry goods). The literature is wide-ranging, covering everything from simple aggregation schemes to much larger social enterprise missions. According to some, they are the second stage of development for sustainable agriculture, as some research indicates that we are hitting a plateau of interest (some may say accesss to) local foods in the direct-to-consumer market. 

Food hubs, are, in most cases, pretty solid. You may not ever see them publicly touted or visible in plain sight, but you've likely been serviced by one. If you buy products from Whole Foods in the Northeast, for example, you may be purchasing from Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative and Red Tomato,two groups that bring products together from small and medium sized farms and distribute them to restaurants and larger buyers such as Whole Foods (who have more centralized systems of purchasing that place small and medium size producers at a disadvantage).  Many ideas for them exist throughout the United States, and many are used as economic development cases. At their best, food hubs represent not only an aggregator of product (as any conventional wholesaler would be), but also conduct some degree of value-added work, some form of jobs training and food-based entrepreneurship incubation work, and if one is lucky, also doing the marketing and co-branding along this entire line. When done cohesively, food hubs can not only bring together product from smaller and medium size producers (some of those most in need of support), but also create direct product stream flow into the businesses that can add value and create additional value for those products, with the added marketing, promotional, and business support required to help those products find markets, both big and small. (They can also, as our model we worked on for a food hub in New Rochelle, include a retail storefront that provides a direct to consumer space, allowing for direct feedback to producers and farmers alike.) While some argue that they are middlemen taking value away from farmers, more often than not food hubs can add value by diversifying the types of markets farms have access to, reaching a wider audience than they might have had otherwise and minimizing waste through bulk sales & purchases. 

This all hinges on the caveat of "when". As the momentum on food hubs have increased, so too has the simplification of the concept.  Many interviews and stories simplify the concept as simply one for "aggregation", which has almost become a code word for reducing the cost of produce to increase accessibility. This on its face is a fine goal; getting access to institutional buyers and increasing the possibility for restaurants and other parties to get access to those products is great. But on its own its insufficient; wholesale is, on its own, a poor space for farmers to obtain value, and aggregation can sometimes diminish uniqueness of product when it's not presented well or valued as such. Only if certain stakeholder points are met -- pricing meets a value-plus floor acceptable to both distributor and producer -- and if marketing is sufficient can those elements be overcome. But the dual-income problem -- of producers receiving enough payment to cover their costs and pay them sufficiently for both their social livelihood and the ecological services rendered, and for consumers, generating value for them both nutritionally and access to jobs that can pay to purchase those products at those prices -- still exists and is probably a pernicious issue of the food hub development scheme. At the end of the day, schemes that focus on aggregation alone and forget about the community economic development angle for both rural and urban communities is doomed to replicate the systems that, ostensibly, food hubs are designed to counter. 

Specifically lost in all this is the social enterprise side of the food hub equation -- and the connection between creating channels not only for existing food businesses but specifically cultivating and generating new businesses where connection to local supply chains is built into the existing plans. And furthermore, making products accessible to communities doesn't necessarily reflect the ability or comfort of those communities to utilize those products -- the food access equivalent of bringing a camel to water but being unable to force it to drink. The promotional, education, and use capacity of communities taking part in sustainability enterprises is still fraught -- wanting to respect communities, promoting culturally appropriate and use-responsible methods, and generate an understanding of regional agriculture -- takes time, and oftentimes is seen as an externality that other orgs can take on; the food hub exists just to make it possible. 

So when we devised the business plan for Diaspora, I thought long and hard about those elements. You may be thinking "but don't you guys do jam and baked goods?", and you would be correct -- jams and baked goods are the things we have done while I've worked two other jobs. But at its core, the business plan -- the thing I wrote my masters work on -- was focused on developing a food hub for community use. Jams, breads, preservers and the like are just some of the products one can make in sufficient scale through aggregation. But providing a space where those products and their production are showcased, where communities and individuals have access to purchasing those products at retail or in quantity for their own processing -- that sort of project gets at my core. I love making jams -- I also love seeing people make their own. Much like the Happy Girl Kitchen Food Preservationists, I envision Diaspora as a space where people can come to learn about preservation methods, purchase products in quantity, and make their own jams, preserves and the like. And like the Bi-Rite Market family of products, I want to take on more advocacy and community development work, fostering a space for nascent food producers to be presented publicly.  Diaspora may on its face be a cafe-bakery with amazing coffee, delicious food, and righteous hospitality, but it's also a place that can act as a community food organization, supplying families, individuals, and perhaps yes, even businesses with foods & knowledge they can use, at a price that leaves farmers, guests, and indeed us, a middleman of sorts, happy to do the work we do. We want to use convivia as a mechanism for change. We want to be the conduit that makes a social enterprise, well, social. 

Ari Weinzweig, one of the guys behind Zingermans and a huge contributor to the managerial philosophies to which I ascribe, talks about the need to be public with our visions of what it is businesses want to do. And I believe wholeheartedly in that -- both because our missions and values should be public and because those ideas are inseparable from who and what I am, and what we want Diaspora to become. For that, we not only have to talk about these ideas openly, but also have others know what we want to do, and as stakeholders in our project, hold us accountable to what we hope to become.