Green Umbrella Regional Sustainability Alliance
USDA Agricultural Marketing Service
June 23, 2022
Our Seeds of Success series highlights the accomplishments and lessons-learned from Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP) grant recipients. Learning from one another, we can build stronger local food systems across the nation.
Green Umbrella, a non-profit in Cincinnati, Ohio, was originally formed in 1998 to address what the founders saw as “diminishing natural areas and biodiversity in the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana region.” The organization has continually evolved to meet the environmental sustainability, food, and health needs of the region. In 2011, Green Umbrella adopted a collective impact model and began working with other organizations in the Cincinnati area. In 2015, the group launched the Greater Cincinnati Regional Food Policy Council. Through this work, the organization started working with two food hubs that were looking to grow.
In 2017, Green Umbrella sought to grow their work with two regional food hubs: Ohio Valley Food Connection (aka Local Food Connection) and Our Harvest Cooperative. Their goal was to increase farm sales, increase access of locally produced agricultural products to institutions and wholesale markets, and increase the number of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certified farms. By combining resources and expertise, the food hubs would be able to develop efficiencies and grow in ways that may not have been possible when operating individually. While both food hubs had enjoyed success, operational limitations along with challenges in expanding sales into the institutional and wholesale markets threatened the long-term sustainability of these two food hubs. Green Umbrella received a Local Food Promotion Program (LFPP) grant for $322,483 to support these goals and address the limitations.
To increase sales and optimize market positioning, Green Umbrella intended to use its LFPP grant to develop a formal collaboration with the two food hubs. Grant funds helped the Ohio Valley Local Food Hub Project to pursue its goals of developing new wholesale market opportunities and cost-saving efficiencies. Technical assistance provided through the project would allow farmers to meet food safety requirements and improve warehousing and transportation capabilities.
The collaboration between the two hubs has resulted in comprehensive and significant improvements for food distribution in the region. These improvements impacted producers; distributors; institutional, wholesale and household buyers; and others affiliated with the distribution network. During the grant period:
Annual sales increased from a baseline of $21,500 to $734,843 at the project completion.
The number of new institutional clients purchasing food through the Local Food Connection Food Hub grew from 8 to 126.
Local Food Connection further developed its culture of food safety excellence, growing to 23 USDA Good Agricultural Practices audited producers.
Local Food Connection merged with What Chefs Want! in 2019, a regional distribution company, enabling the hub to leverage the marketing, distribution, storage, processing, existing food service management contracts, customer service, and other factors contributing to success and growth.
Local Food Connection and Our Harvest Co-op co-located allowing the two food hubs to share the same space and common expenses of warehousing, dry and cold storage, and utility costs. Their complementary logistics schedules optimize the space utilization.
Institutional clients want education with their local food. Institutional buyers requested that employee engagement and education be paired with the purchase of local food for their menu.
Values-driven frameworks creates the road map buyers need. Institutions, such as Cincinnati Public Schools and the University of Kentucky, have established policies in their contracts that promote the purchasing of local food and support the regional food system.
Distributors are influential in setting prices and making local food available to institutional buyers. Distributors are powerful and may source regionally and nationally, combining produce from many farms to meet bid requirements including local produce, which may not have had a market otherwise.
Efficient crop planning is key. Maintain a high level of communication with farmers on crop availability, volumes, and any changes in crop plans that might affect a buyer’s plan.
Smaller producers may be able to respond quickly to supply chain disruptions. Lauren Marlow, the Cincinnati Public School’s Manager of Nutrition, shared that in her experience “smaller producers had more flexibility to overcome hurdles, unlike the bigger producers who had labor shortages for producing and trucking produce to distributors and customers.”
Where are they now?
Technology has become a vital next step for the project work, especially with the efficiencies developed during the merger between the Local Food Connection and the larger distributor, What Chefs Want! It is becoming increasingly important to seamlessly integrate local products into larger orders by institutions and corporate clients. The grant enabled Green Umbrella to continue to grow support from institutional buyers for the local food system. Our Harvest is expected to grow through the expansion of buying co-ops; an employer supported CSA program; and increasing small scale retailers in low food access neighborhoods.