FoodHub Uses Online Social Networking to Get Farm-fresh Food to School Cafeterias

Sometimes it’s hard to see what’s right in front of you. For many individuals and institutions, the problem with switching to local food purchases isn’t that people are unwilling or unenthusiastic, it’s that many just don’t know where to look. With our daily lives moving at breakneck speed amidst a flurry of tweets, emails, and texts, we often find ourselves paying more attention to the screens in front of us than the world in which we live. Organizations around the country are taking advantage of this period of technological innovation by developing virtual tools to help open our eyes to the bounty of our local food systems.

One such organization is Ecotrust based in Portland, Ore. Two years ago, they launched FoodHub, a social networking tool that revitalizes regional agriculture by helping farmers and buyers find one another online, often in a matter of minutes. Farmers provide comprehensive profiles that lay out the specifics of their operations, such as organic status, size, growing season, and available products, allowing buyers to search the site for a suitable match. Buyers can even broadcast the need for a particular crop, allowing producers to respond to the demand online.

This increased transparency and ease of use have been a tremendous boon to Ecotrust’s Farm to School initiative, facilitating links between regional food producers and schools who otherwise might not have been able to connect. Stacey Sobell, Ecotrust’s Farm to School Manager, notes that FoodHub has dramatically influenced her work in getting more local foods into school cafeterias. Because schools often do not have the time or resources to find these farmers, FoodHub does most of the legwork for them.

Over 125 school districts in Oregon and Washington are registered with FoodHub, representing approximately 1,400 schools serving children from kindergarten all the way through high school. There are even 24 pre-kindergarten programs that are members of the site. Taken together, these institutions serve over 670,000 children in the Pacific Northwest. While specific data tracking how much local food makes it to cafeteria trays remains uncollected, Sobell noted that FoodHub has brought Ecotrust’s Farm to School program in contact with far more school districts than ever before.

“Just by seeing who signs up with FoodHub allows us to get a picture of who’s interested in buying local,” Sobell said, and that information helps her identify new districts to whom she can reach out and offer support.

The results of these connections have been illuminating for many school service staff. Sobell remarked that after conducting quick searches on FoodHub, several schools and districts are often shocked by the number of farmers that grow crops just down the street from them. As Diane Hyndman from the Wahluke School District attested, FoodHub “brings the farmers’ market right into my office,” making the process of finding connections simple. What might start as a quick online message between a school and a farmer can grow into a partnership that fills more children’s bellies with locally produced food.

Many farmers on FoodHub run small-scale operations, a reality that often makes connecting with large-scale buyers like schools more difficult. Traditional food hubs address this problem by taking on the aggregation, marketing, and distribution of products from multiple farmers. Doing so allows these organizations to meet demands from large-scale buyers while allowing smaller agricultural operations to remain viable. Through FoodHub, this process happens virtually. The site’s extensive directory of regional producers and buyers (FoodHub boasts just under 3,700 members) and online marketplace help “organize the local market and makes the parties transparent to each other so that they can do business directly,” notes Director Amanda Oborne.

Direct communication makes it possible for smaller farms to meet hefty demands, as when growers on FoodHub answered a request from Portland Public Schools (PPS) for 200 pounds of radishes for one of the district’s Harvest of the Month offerings. The program promotes awareness and consumption of healthy foods in schools by featuring a unique crop in its cafeterias each month. Gitta Grether-Sweeney, Nutrition Services Director for PPS, noted that she “got responses from farmers right in [her] district” after she posted the call for radishes on FoodHub’s online Marketplace. The site allowed her to take advantage of the short supply chain between local farmers and the schools she serves, adding that produce “doesn’t get any fresher than that.”

By letting users see who and what is out there, FoodHub opens up an array of possible connections across the Pacific Northwest’s regional food system. Virtual tools like FoodHub are important to help boost the success of local farmers and to provide additional channels for marketing and distribution. Furthermore, without being tied to specific infrastructure, FoodHub opens up the possibility for adaption across regions, potentially leading to further innovation.

Photo credit to Scott Trimble.

Correction: The original release of this article indicated that approximately 1,600 schools serving over 820,000 children were registered using FoodHub. The updated numbers have removed figures from accounts that are not currently active on the site.