Local Foods Get a Lift Through Innovative Online Distribution Hub

A bicoastal joint venture has formed to address the single biggest barrier to building robust regional food economies – distribution. 

Portland-Oregon based Ecotrust and Boston-based Organic Renaissance FoodEx are creating an online matchmaking and on-the-ground logistics solution that helps wholesale food buyers overcome a host of obstacles to sourcing food from local producers.

Ecotrust runs the online marketplace FoodHub, and Organic Renaissance runs a logistics and trucking system for local food delivery in New England. 

Together, they plan to expand Ecotrust’s online system so local food producers such as ranchers, farmers or fishermen can use it as a central place to negotiate sales to wholesale buyers such as universities, corporate cafeterias, hospitals, schools or specialty retailers.

The network will greatly help local food producers by removing the burden of sales and logistics. They’ll be able to centralize invoicing and arrange for deliveries through an existing regional transportation and logistics network.

From the buyers’ standpoint, the system will help consolidate deliveries – so that food from several different local producers arrives together rather than as a string of separate deliveries.

For example, a school could consolidate its orders for local vegetables, eggs and meat through the system, and then schedule a single shipment.

"Product categories include everything from ice cream and other frozen goods, to seafood and proteins, to produce and specialty products. Emphasis will be on transparency and collaboration. Producers will be able to see who is buying their product and maintain a direct relationship if they so choose; buyers can access rich producer profiles to share their suppliers’ stories with their eaters. We’ll be developing a network of progressive regional and specialty distributors, food hubs and local food organizations to leverage existing infrastructure (we don’t want to put more trucks on the road!),"  say Ecotrust and OR FoodEx. 

Ecotrust and OR Foodex plan to test and refine the platform over the next year in New England, and then replicate that model on the West Coast.

“To change the system, we have to create an economically viable, workable alternative," says JD Kemp, founder and CEO of OR FoodEx. "Independent, family-scale farmers, ranchers, fishermen, dairies, and specialty producers are making an enormous amount of good, fresh, healthy food in this country. There are also millions of people who care about where their food comes from and how it was produced. The system doesn’t work for any of them right now.”

OR FoodEx was launched in 2009 in Boston and Athol, Massachusetts, to distribute produce from local independent food producers to specialty retailers and grocery co-ops. Last year, the company began aggregating deliveries from local farmers for two New England universities. 

FoodHub’s focus has been on brokering connections between local food buyers and sellers for the past 20 years – its online platform has supported $500 million in local food sales. More than 4,000 food producers, wholesale buyers and industry suppliers currently use FoodHub.

The joint venture, which hasn’t been named yet, will focus on marrying the two approaches.

“With FoodHub we had built a very user-friendly platform for helping local food buyers and sellers find each other and connect, but we couldn’t solve their distribution challenges," says Amanda Oborne, director of FoodHub, talking about the motivation for the joint venture. FoodEx had pioneered a disruptive model for regional-scale fulfillment, but their platform was missing the producers’ stories and all the relationship-building tools we had developed. It felt like peanut butter and jelly.”

The USDA is also helping small farmers connect with people who want to buy locally produced food by fostering "food hubs."

For more about the joint venture:

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