Amanda Oborne leads a team of program, communications and software development professionals to pioneer new models of regional resilience in food and agriculture at Ecotrust. With projects in farm-to-school, market development, and “ag of the middle” producer support, Amanda’s team is helping to create a world in which healthy eaters, flourishing farms and ranches, and vibrant communities are linked and thriving. In 2010, Ecotrust launched FoodHub, www.food-hub.org, a web platform that helps wholesale food buyers find local farmers, ranchers, fishermen and other food producers in the western US. Amanda has a master’s degree in Integrated Marketing Communications from Northwestern University, and she formerly managed direct marketing for Intuit’s QuickBooks brand.
Food hubs are designed to strengthen local food economies. Oborne explains how Ecotrust’s food hub works through its technological platform. She discusses the reasons behind creating resilient communities and explains how such efforts apply to consumers.
Douglas Gayeton: Can you explain what Ecotrust does?
Amanda Oborne: There's a team of economists, financers, software developers, and program managers focused on the task of sustainable stewardship of the resources that make resilient communities.
Our primary objective with food and farming is to help build sustainable, regional food economies. Resilient regional food systems are really the antidote to all of the threats like climate change, water scarcity, peak oil, loss of biodiversity or anything that could wreak havoc on global food supply chains.
One of the projects is FoodHub. FoodHub is a technology platform that allows local producers to find and connect with local, wholesale buyers. Everything from produce and proteins, seafood, dairy, eggs, poultry, nuts and seeds, condiments, and value added products can be listed on FoodHub.
It includes producers, processors, distributors, and associates (who care about regional food system development but maybe aren't buying or selling food themselves). It’s geared up for the wholesale market; so this isn’t individual eaters, but restaurants, bakeries, and schools.
Douglas: Systems tend to consolidate. Why do you think that the consolidation of the food system can suddenly be dismantled?
Amanda: I don't think that the agro-industrial system is going to be rendered completely obsolete and replaced overnight by any means, but I do think there is opportunity for smaller regionally based systems to develop within given regions and form resilience in the face of threats from outside.
Everyone will get serious about regional food systems quickly, when the price of oil goes to $200 a barrel. People are going to be looking for food that’s produced in the region rather than being shipped in from Chile.
Douglas: How does a food hub take into account all of the other goods, like salt and coffee, that a consumer can’t get locally?
Amanda: We’re always going to go outside for lemons, chocolate, bananas and that kind of stuff. I think that's okay. We have to be realistic about what we expect from eaters, and how we expect them to change their habits. If they are making use of the bounty that's available in their region when it's in season; if they change to a more seasonal diet where they're not trying to eat strawberries in mid-winter, then we're making progress.
I think it's appropriate for food hubs to source from outside the region things they can't get, but they need to be very transparent about what products those are or when they're doing it, in order to keep the trust of the people who expressly use them in order to have their food match their values.
Douglas: How much of a role does education play in building a resilient or regional food hub?
Amanda: I think it's vital because ultimately it's those dollars spent -- whether at Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), farmers markets, local groceries or with the food hub -- that drive the whole system. So, others need to understand what the realities of that agro-industrial food system are so that they can decide for themselves whether that matches their own values. Then they need to understand what's locally available and how it's produced so that they can make those educated choices.
I think that it’s a lifelong journey for people. It's not something that you digest in one sitting. It definitely takes ongoing effort.