Investigating regional food hubs as tools for development and change: A multi-scale and mixed methods approach

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Motzer, Nicole
Silva, Julie A
The revitalization of rural, agricultural communities in the United States represents a constant challenge. Persistently high levels of rural poverty stem in part from agricultural industrialization, the subsequent loss of family farms, and dwindling rural economies. Theoretically integrating economic viability, social justice, and environmental sustainability back into agriculture and food, alternative food networks (AFNs) represent opportunities for rural communities to redress social, economic, and environmental declines accompanying agricultural industrialization in the twentieth and twenty–first centuries. As organizations that aggregate, market, and distribute locally and regionally sourced food within wholesale, retail, and institutional markets, regional food hubs (RFHs) represent the most recent AFN type, but also the one most associated with advancing rural revitalization and agricultural change. An overall lack of empirical investigation, however, along with limited conceptualizations of development constrains current understandings as to how – or even if – RFHs contribute to rural development in the ways that are increasingly espoused in the literature and policy. With a focus on RFHs as rapidly expanding yet largely untested AFNs, this dissertation follows a mixed methods and multi–scale approach. Blending quantitative analyses at national and regional scales with qualitative case study data, this dissertation explores development–related potential and processes for RFHs in a variety of places and then empirically evaluates rural development outcomes in a theoretically ideal setting. Findings indicate that RFHs generally do not locate where outcomes are most likely to reflect rural development expectations, though to spatially varying degrees. When a RFH does locate in such a place, outcomes are primarily though not always positive, and overall suggest that RFHs can help to fill social, economic, and ecological gaps and needs. Results reveal that women farmers play integral roles in shaping and extending RFHs’ development impacts. Yet, persistent poverty and geographically concentrated disadvantages limit transformative capacities. Reigning in rural development claims, this dissertation concludes that although RFHs are unlikely to redress broad conditions of rural decline, they may prime rural, agricultural communities in ways that extend both the efficacy and reach of policies and interventions to follow.