Scaling up and Zooming in: local food distribution

January 18, 2012

There is a lot of symbolic expression in the food movement.  You’ll hear the reasons for participating in your local food community over and over again.  While I’m a little tired of hearing them, I do believe in the environmental benefits of local/organic agriculture, the social benefits of farmers markets and farm events, the nutritional value in fresh food, and dollar shifting. There are more benefits of sustainable agriculture I’m sure.  However, too often these benefits are believed to be the driving force of sustainable agriculture, the reciprocal means of its survival. Certainly farmers market customers, foodie believers, and environmentalists help sustainable agriculture continue, but practical and economic concerns, the nuts and bolts of a food business, are often left out of the romantic picture of the local food movement.

There are a number of reasons why folks don’t think about the nitty-gritty. One is the idea that the food movement isn’t about money. It’s about going beyond the bar code, making economic transactions the result of relationships, and turning away from the money-grubbing multi-national food corporations.  This is all well and good, but local food needs money too. Some programs have stepped up to the plate to address this need, and the gap between consumer conscience and consumer pocketbooks.  The campaign for 10% Shift showed folks that shifting 10% of spending to local/independent businesses would produce 48,000 jobs in New England.  Slow Money, on the other hand, is an investment fund to start-up new food businesses, investing as if food, farms, and fertility matter.

10% Shift and Slow Money are taking a step forward and scaling up. The symbolic expression of foodiedom is all about being small. Thinking about production, marketing, and distribution, words created by our big ol’ capitalist system about big ol’ corporations, cuts into the image of farmers talking directly to consumers, artisanal foods, and community-based economics.  Obviously scale and locality are important parts of this movement.  Economy should be too, if we want it to survive.

The food movement can be about changing economic relationships AND efficiency; I argue that it must merge those two ideas.  Growing the movement is about finding ways to create change at the same time we are developing staying power in the economy.  Staying power and growth in the economy comes at a cost to the ego of symbolic expression: we have to look to corporate capitalism for advice.  We’ve got to scale up.  We aren’t going to change the way food is grown and distributed in this country through farmers markets, individual by individual.  We have to take bigger strides: institutions like schools and hospitals, restaurants, airports, businesses, and grocery stores. To expand to this level we need something big food is great at: efficient distribution channels and central aggregation facilities.

These assets are developing on the local food scene with what are known as food hubs. The USDA defines a food hub as “a centrally located facility with a business management structure facilitating the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution, and/or marketing of locally/regionally produced food products.”  There is a lot of room for growth in this industry and recent research (USDA, CIAS)  has worked to spell out the benefits and challenges of food hubs and extended distribution networks.  Certainly, with increased demand for local food beyond the individual consumer level, there is a need for larger scale growing and distribution (NPR).

A bump up in scale could be great for farmers. With skilled, like-minded distributors some weight can be lifted from farmers, who are often solely responsible for marketing and distributing their food. Farmers will have more time to grow food (or, god forbid work less), and distributors can help grow the farm business.  Farmers to You, what I’d call a “like-minded distributor”  or a “good middleman” considers growing their Partner farm businesses a part of their mission. Another important aspect of their business model is working with consumers to rethink their connection with food, the Earth, and money (see their blog).  Part of this is asking Families to make a commitment to the company and to the farmers, $30/week every week.  Farmers to You distributes Vermont-grown food to Boston area people.  Folks come to neighborhood driveways to pick up their food each week.

Although this is not institution level distribution, it is one scale step up from farmer markets.  Farmers to You has a pretty good balance going between staying power and  encouraging change. However, they are running into problems trying to support small, beginning farmers at the same time they are trying to provide consistency and fair prices to their Partner families.  The company sure won’t be changing customers minds if they are unhappy or dropping out of the service, nor will any farmers be supported in that scenario.  A balance is developing where Farmers to You offers business advice and counseling to farmers as they grow, giving them a market for their products as they reach the appropriate scale.

Another distribution company on this scale is Graze, also based in Vermont.  Their approach almost ensures more success in the marketplace, but the company shies away from being agents of social change. Graze delivers prepared foods, meat, cheese and value-added items to homes in suburban Boston and Connecticut. They’re marketing image is CONVENIENT, high-quality, local food.   Since its start the company has responded to consumer demand and shifted its focus to prepared foods and dinner kits, a smart move when your customers can afford to live in Weston, Lincoln, Wellesley, and Concord.

Unlike Farmers to You, Graze does not have a newsletter or blog and doesn’t require any commitment week to week.  They aren’t trying to challenge notions of economy or encourage people to rethink their relationship with food.  Instead, they are buying into the capitalist idea of convenience….and it’s working. They are filling a demand that Farmers to You perhaps couldn’t by supplying people with local food who don’t want to rethink economics, and why would they?  Instead, Graze makes choosing local, sustainable foods easier by making the option ultra-convenient.  If all the people who could afford it had convenient access to local food, farms would grow! Maybe even enough to reduce the price for less well-off folks.

Even though Graze is taking a more capitalist-driven approach they still have community-oriented goals and generate some of the benefits I talked about above. They are supporting local farmers and making farmer information available to their customers, much more than a conventional distribution company would do.  Some customers are changing their minds even without a push from the company.  In a holiday card one customer thanked Graze for offering her busy family healthy food every day. “The Graze delivery has really changed the way we eat!”   This is great news!

Farmers are also seeing benefits from Graze’s business model. Although Monument Farms Diary has been selling milk in Vermont for 3 generations, head farmer Bob James had never thought his milk would leave the state.  “It was so rewarding to hear Mr. James excitedly tell the farm crew that we [Graze]  were the ones bringing their milk to Boston and Connecticut,” said Marcia Pomerance, Boston-area Market Director for Graze.

I brought up Graze and Farmers to You because we need models going forward, especially as bigger distribution companies enter the market place. Establishing meaningful, lasting relationships becomes harder the more separation there is between farmer and consumer, between consumers, and the more farmers are involved with the distribution company. For instance, both Graze and Farmers to You are able to tell people exactly what farm their food is from, an important part of their models that could be lost as distribution scales up.  Another important message from analyzing these two distribution companies is that we will likely need many different types of larger scale distributors: ones that are really working with restaurants and schools to rethink food and ones that cater to institutions that focus on convenience.  Larger scale distribution companies are already developing: Food EX, Market Mobile, Blue Ridge Produce…  I don’t know enough about these companies to discuss them here, but I would love to learn how they balance economy with social change.

How can we iron out the inefficiencies of local agriculture while redefining the social meanings of efficiency, economy, and food?

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2 Responses to “Scaling up and Zooming in: local food distribution”

  1. Cathy Stanton said

    A thoughtful post, Signe! I’m remembering that you and I had some conversation about this issue of scaling up – i.e. given that historically, the trajectory has tended to be toward larger and larger production and distribution networks, what might keep us from just heading down the same road again? Is there a particular red flag (or series of flags) that you think we should watch out for, that might signal we’re reaching a problematic scope or size?

  2. alex said

    I agree, thoughtful post! These are hard issues to reconcile–the idea that in order to grow the local/organic food movement we have to be big and bold, sometimes at the risk of stretching an already tentative relationship between consumer and farmer, can be uncomfortable. For me, I relish the small scale of CSA distribution, my local farmers market, or local corner market. But that’s because I already buy into the idea that buying small and local is worth the sometimes extra cost and effort. For those who aren’t there yet, the small health food stores just can’t compete with the Safeway’s of this world. Even if you are dedicated to buying at least organically if not locally, the Safeways and Shaws of this world can still provide organic food at a cheaper price than your favorite crunchy grocery store. While that might always be the case, I do think there is a gap to fill in the middle.

    Whole Foods has tried to fill that gap, although monopolizing the market in the process. They have in some ways taken lessons from the capitalistic approach you write about and shifted the model to support local farms, donate to local organizations and non profits, support healthy foods in schools, and even help start community gardens. For these reasons, I don’t think the food whole is as bad as some think. In fact, WF model might even help address the go big syndrom Cathy talks about–if WF can support local farmers and local food, food that is produced on a smaller scale compared to that of industrialized ag. operations, then maybe they are on to something. Maybe buying local combats the fear that greater distribution channels will ultimately lead to mass/over production? I’m not sure.

    I think the farmer to consumer relationship is especially important. Creating these food hubs is an excellent idea, especially because they are local and regional. This geographic limitation is a way to keep the connection alive and to avoid the problematic expansion mentioned.

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