At Montgomery County Food Council, we are leading a journey of discovery this fall, to learn about the infrastructure that makes it possible to buy and sell food locally. Each year, it seems more and more farmers and local food entrepreneurs seek ways to bring their farm fresh products to their local community. We asked ourselves what sort of infrastructure they will need to be able to more efficiently deliver food. For example, would they be served if an aggregation, distribution, cut/wash/pack food hub were installed? If so, how big would it be? Would there be only one? How would it fit into the existing infrastructure as a partner? And what services will it offer farmers, food businesses, and the local community? To answer these questions and more, we have invited interested parties from across the DC area to learn together, pool our knowledge, and develop a shared vision for how to fill unmet needs to improve the local food system.
Our first stop on our journey was at 4P Foods, a food hub in Warrenton, VA, on August 31. We were guided through the hub by Tom McDougall, Founder and CEO. The story of 4P Foods begins with Tom taking out a private bank loan using his home as collateral with one 22×16 cooler. 4P grew into an aggregation, distribution, packaging facility that fills 1,000 orders per week. 4P has blossomed in the past five years to work with over 1,000 farmers in the region, whose size ranges from a quarter acre to 4,000 acres. Tom has a vision of a decentralized food network, not a “spoke and wheel” food distribution pattern, but more like a richly interconnected web, where buying and selling to regional markets is made easier for small businesses. Tom also shared his ideas that food distribution should be a public good. He worked with social impact investors, to ensure that 4P has a stacked capital approach, with social impact measures baked into the returns. We left the tour with eyes wide open about the challenges of food hubs, but also with new inspiration for creative approaches to making the food hub work.
With more and more folks talking about decentralizing our food systems (as a noteworthy example, see USDA’s Food System Transformation Framework), we need to put our heads together to plan how to do it. Please join us for the next part of the Food Systems Infrastructure Opportunity Series, and become a part of the ongoing discussion at the meetings of the Food Economy Working Group. Let’s gather together our shared wisdom to create something bold and better.