After recently posing a question on Twitter regarding people’s opinions on whether organic or sustainable food was more important, it became clear that our food problems are far bigger than this limited characterization. Simply put, we must find innovative ways to dramatically improve the quality and quantity of the food people eat.
For example, a relatively small, but fast growing segment of the population is connecting with local farms to learn about where their food comes from through weekly farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) programs. While these rich and educational interactions are nearly ideal, they are not available to a vast majority of people who spent $535 billion at nearly 35,000 supermarkets across the country in 2007. And it is unrealistic to assume farms could handle interacting with over 300 million Americans stopping by every week, even if we significantly increased the number of farms or expanded the size of current farms.
To reach mainstream America, we need new and innovative ways to connect consumers with sustainably grown, processed and transported food. That will require redesigning much of today’s conventional food system; a system designed from the ground up to meet the financial needs of America’s leading food businesses (regardless of what they tell us).
I propose we start the redesign at the point where food and eaters meet and buying decisions are made – the retail channels, e.g., supermarkets.
First, we need to significantly reduce the number of food products offered to consumers, currently estimated at 45,000 items in the average supermarket. Reducing the massive amounts of visual information, including conflicting and (intentionally?) confusing messages associated with marketing and nutritional claims, will benefit consumers that are finding it nearly impossible to make their way through the aisles without picking up a lot of strategically placed, highly processed, unhealthy food products.
And even when shoppers make a list before entering the store, which research shows 70 percent of shoppers do, only 10 percent adhere to the list, according to Marion Nestle in What To Eat. Ms. Nestle goes on to say, “Even with a list, most shoppers pick up two additional items for every item on the list.” Such impulse purchases, which are highly profitable for the store, are no accident, nor are the confusing messages or lengthy aisles. Today’s supermarkets are expertly designed to maximize what consumers see in order to maximize what they buy. This simple formula has been refined over decades to a profit-generating science.
Next, we need to introduce an entirely new in-store labeling methodology that visually helps consumers easily characterizes the overall sustainability of a food product in terms of its health (including nutritional information), environmental, economic and social impacts. Some customer may equally value all of these aspects of sustainability, while others may emphasis only one or two. For example, someone concerned with global warming would look for products with the highest Environmental grade when making their purchase decisions. Getting as many products in a store labeled in such a way will help consumers quickly find the raw and processed food products that best match their needs.
Finally, implementing these ideas will require an entirely new, consumer-oriented retail experience, one with far fewer products, especially highly processed and prepared foods, in a much more intimate space. Within such a store, you would also rethink displays to ensure that the intelligent, easy-to-understand labels were clearly visible for every product. This new retail experience will fit in a significant scaled down store when compared to today’s mega stores, with a median size of 47,500 square feet in 2007, according to the Food Marketing Institute, representing a complete departure from the more products, more product lines, bigger footprint mentality that has dominated food retail for decades.
What we end up with, after a lot more hard work (and a few waves of our magic wand), are intimate, consumer-friendly food stores in every neighborhood in America helping people to eat like Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, and other leading voices in the food movement recommend.
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