The Faith-Based Food Hubs Program of Cornell University Cooperative Extension: Connecting New York City’s faith-based communities with New York State’s farmers

Posted: December 13, 2014

A unique program taps into a robust network of faith-based communities to create a new market for farmers.
Khin Mar Cho (third from left) with some of her colleagues in the Faith-Based Food Hubs program. Photo provided.

Khin Mar Cho (third from left) with some of her colleagues in the Faith-Based Food Hubs program. Photo provided.

During the May “What Works” conference, Khin Mar Cho presented “Towards Sustainable Local Food Systems – Direct Marketing and Distribution at Food Hubs.” We caught up with Cho to learn and share more about her program. Watch for more conference highlights in future issues of our newsletter.

Faith-based organizations are everywhere, and New York City is no exception, says Khin Mar Cho, an Extension Specialist of Cornell University Cooperative Extension in New York City. She should know. For years, she’s been working with the city’s robust network of faith-based organizations to deliver nutrition education to low-income residents. All the while, Cho has also been working with New York State farmers, delivering training on how to use MarketMaker, an online interactive mapping tool that helps producers find markets for their agricultural products. In 2012, Cho saw an opportunity to connect these two projects, launching a unique program aimed at increasing the faith-based community’s access to healthy food: the Faith-Based Food Hub program.

"Many faith-based organizations operate food pantries and soup kitchens. So, starting in 2007, I have been building our network in the faith-based community, increasing the number of churches, mosques, and synagogues included in our programs every year," said Cho. "We are in the community every day providing nutrition education, cooking demonstrations, and information on healthy eating."

During these events, Cho has learned that while many members of the faith-based community want to increase their fresh fruit and vegetable intake, they haven’t been sure how to access those foods. They want to buy New York State farmers’ products, said Cho, but aren’t necessarily interested in accessing the city’s existing channels. Many people simply can’t afford to shop at farmers markets, and CSAs aren’t appealing to many ethnic consumers, who don’t see the types of fruits and vegetables they’re looking for among the offerings of a typical CSA.

In an "aha moment," Cho realized that these barriers represented opportunities for New York’s farmers, and envisioned a food distribution system that would help connect the two groups. Using MarketMaker, she identified a number of upstate farmers who were already coming to New York City to deliver to restaurants or retail outlets. She reached out to them to gauge their interest in accessing the city’s faith-based market and to find out what their requirements might be for making weekly deliveries to these communities. With their input, she developed a community food hub model, which she piloted in 2012. Three farmers participated, along with two Brooklyn-based churches, each serving as a distribution hub for four or five additional nearby FBOs.

Since then, the program has expanded to all five of the city’s boroughs, where seven hubs work with 39 FBOs. How each of these FBOs use their weekly food deliveries varies, said Cho. Some use it in their soup kitchens or distribute it through their food pantries, while others place food orders entirely on behalf of congregation members. Cho works with the leaders of the participating FBOs to help them choose a model that makes the most financial sense for their organization.

While most food hubs are meant to simply connect buyer and seller, Cho’s model goes one step further. "Our food hubs are creating learning opportunities for both [the farmer and consumer]," said Cho. "Farmers come to the community for at least 20 minutes, meeting with pastors, reverends, members, food pantry coordinators, even Cornell nutrition staff. The farmer gets a chance to learn about the neighborhood, what kind of ethnicities are there, and the kind of vegetables they appreciate. And the community gets to know the farmer and ask questions."

Cho and her staff also make a point of being at the food hubs on delivery days to provide training specific to the foods included in that week’s delivery. They create culturally relevant recipes and provide onsite cooking demonstrations so recipients know how to use what they’ve received.