From Junk Food to Food Hubs—Is the American Diet Shifting?


Not long ago being a “health food nut” meant that your friends were wary of coming over for dinner, but now it seems that if you try to separate your diet from unhealthy and processed food, you've joined a nationwide movement. According to some analysts, even the face of the Big Food industry is changing towards healthier food. At the same time, the locally sourced food market is growing at an unprecedented rate and a slew of research indicates it's only going to get stronger. Is America finally turning the corner on making healthy food choices?

Trends in fast food have been leaning towards healthier options. Sales have slowed for traditional “burger stampers” like McDonald’s.  “Fast casual” restaurants like Chipotle are booming. We’re seeing similar trends in the soda market. People are more aware and more concerned with how food affects their health and with the impact that producing food has on the environment. Now, it seems, the push for healthier options is reaching up to the very halls of the Big Food industry itself. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Annie Gasparro explored various mergers and acquisitions amongst big packaged-food giants that were driven by...

...the new reality facing big packaged-food companies, which are under pressure to trim spending amid broad weakness in sales of traditional products.”

By traditional products, of course, Gasparro means, Kraft Mac n’ Cheese and the rest. On the one hand consumer demand is driving the change—concerned shoppers are asking for better products. Yet the other more market-based trend is that people are simply making purchases of healthier options. Looking at this trend through a local food perspective, we’ve seen an amazing amount of growth in farmer’s markets, as well as huge increases in spending at these markets.

Despite the undeniably important aspects of farmer’s marketsthey are limited in their reach—access is contingent on transportation and time, even if cost is not a factor. Local food entrepreneurs point to Food Hubs as the solution. Also known as “food aggregators” these businesses buy up local produce en masse allowing for bulk sales to local food business. Food hubs allow farmers to reduce their marketing time and costs, as well as receive a fixed price on their produce which provides more economic certainty. There are over 300 of these food hubs now in the U.S. and a recent report from the Wallace Center took the first steps in analyzing their growth. The study, entitled COUNTING VALUES Food Hub Financial Benchmarking, used financial and operational data of 48 food hubs to establish current financial performance of these businesses, as well as best practices. It will be vital information for future growth of the market:

Demand for local foods will continue to grow in economic significance for food producers and in cultural and public health significance for communities. Understanding how this market sector works is important not just to farmers and food hub operators, but also to investors, grant makers, and lenders who need to understand where the risks are for each stage in the value chain and for the sector as a whole.”

Food hubs are a new field, but much of the country is hoping for their success. For instance, a recent paper from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture provides advice on best management practices.

Research will continue to emerge as food hubs grow, but these businesses are certainly not the only way that local food is flourishing across our country. A new report from the New Entry Sustainable Food Project analysed the performance and successes of the USDA’s Community Food Projects Competitive Grant Program which funds local efforts to support food sovereignty for low-income communities. The report concludes:

Since these projects are deeply rooted in the communities they serve, they continue to impact lives after the initial funding is concluded through increased resiliency and self-sufficiency. In both the short and long-term, these projects are making a difference and contributing to a future where our communities are more connected to their food sources, are more confident about their ability to access food and are more equipped to provide healthier food for themselves and their families.”

Efforts to support local and sustainable food are also contingent on local, regional, state and federal policies. Food policy councils have emerged as a powerful way for citizens to organize their municipalities and governments around local food. The Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins recently finished their annual research on FPC’s and this time they’ve included an interactive map identifying all registered FPCs in the U.S. and southern Canada. As you can imagine, this map will continue to populate. We encourage all of our readers to look for one close by to support. If there’s not one, consider making one!

Resources and initiatives around local sustainable food seem to be ubiquitous, and they will hopefully continue to rival the Big Food packaged-junk-food market. It is premature to proclaim a massive shift in the American diet, but all of the trends—the decline of Big Food and the intense interest in local food—are heartening for those of us who care about the health of our nation and our planet.

Image via Flickr


Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson

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