Montana Co-op:  Building a Network of Food Hubs

What is a network of Food Hubs? 
We may be coming up with our own definition on this one.  Once we understand the benefits of a Food Hub (see Polson & Ronan examples), only then, can we begin to see the benefits of a group of Food Hubs working together within a region or State.  The Montana Co-op's unique business model is working to develop and enhance the services of multiple Food Hubs in Montana that will bring people and communities together for collaboration around common values of healthy lifestyle (food & exercise), sustainable living, and other community needs including economic development, youth outreach, senior care, and more.  

A regional Food Hub network supports long-term connections between farmers and consumers while meeting the economic, social, health, and environmental needs of communities in a region.  This includes growing, processing, storing, distributing, transporting, and selling food and local products.  The network will help farmers and producers access reliable markets, ensure fair prices and wages, and encourage land preservation and sustainable farming practices.  It will also provide consumers with a better relationship with their food and the place in which it was grown.  A western Montana regional Food Hub network will foster a sustainable economy, strengthen our food security, and build a healthy local food system. 

Building the Network through Value Chains:
The vast majority of Americans rely on a supply chain to bring food to their tables.  Beginning with the farmer, supply chains move food through processing, aggregation, and distribution to the market.  In this process, food changes hands multiple times and travels massive distances – an average of 1,500 miles – and consumers rarely see the farmers or know where the food originated.

Values-based chains are an alternative method of producing and distributing food.  They emphasize building business relationships that facilitate high levels of trust and win-win situations for the partners in the chain.  Partners within the values-based chain – those who supply the food products or add value to the food products – have rights and responsibilities to ensure fair profit margins, fair wages, and business agreements.

Shared values, vision, information, and decision-making among the partners are important to a successful values-based chain.  Sharing rewards and profits, as well as establishing rules of business among the partners ensures fairness and justice.  In working together, partners make commitments to each others’ well-being that can ripple throughout the community they share and serve.

The Kids Co-op is a non-profit (501 C3) that is dedicated to empower the youth with meaningful opportunities and gives us an opportunity to nourish more youth to get involved in this values-based chain.  The Kids Co-op main focus is help us grow and produce more local food by tapping into best practices (local mentors) in Kids Co-op Gardens, Kids Co-op Kitchens, and Kids Co-op Markets (food as fresh as possible).

Room for Growth...
-The Montana food industry has experienced major changes over the last 50 years. Montana has gone from growing and consuming 70% of our own food, down to under 10%.  
-Western Montana has 1.8 million acres of farm land. 
-Western Montana farmers and ranchers spend $198 million to produce an average of $167 million of commodity crops each year, losing $31 million annually.  In addition,the region’s farmers spend $80 million buying inputs from external suppliers.  Regionally, this totals a net loss of $111 million per year.
-Western Montana consumers spend an estimated $680 million buying food produced outside the region.  
-If western Montana consumers purchased only 15% of the food they need for home use directly from the region’s farmers, this would produce $66 million of new farm income in western MT and $225 million for all of MT.
*For more information on the Crossroads Research project that was performed for western Montana, click here.
-During the Montana Co-op's feasibility study, 97% of W. Montana consumers surveyed would purchase more local food if it was more accessible.

See a video produced from Grow Montana that highlights why it's so hard to find locally produced food

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What’s missing in our local food system?
Value-added products:  In 2007, the region had more than 5,000 farms, but only 262 farms reported producing value-added products. Increasing production of value-added products will require widespread training and additional processing facilities.

Regional organization:  The network would benefit from the assistance of an administrative entity in coordinating farmers, farm workers,processors, and distributors and helping them access a wide range of markets.

Increased collaboration:  Greater collaboration among food producers and shared decision making, facilitated by the administrative entity,will bring about a strong and sustainable values-based chain.

Logistical support:  Accessing new markets will require a consistent supply of products, meeting food safety requirements, and scale-appropriate regulations.  Supporting local producers in a shared transportation and distribution model will help producers reach a larger geographical market (all of Montana).