Innovating the Food Buying Experience

In Sunday’s New York Times, Mark Bittman presented an idea that many readers might have found controversial: organic food is less important than getting Americans to generally eat better. His reasoning was that the impact of “a simple shift in eating habits” would have significant health and environmental benefits.

I agree.

Mr. Bittman belongs to a distinguished list of “real food” advocates that have been calling for important and overdue changes to the American diet, including:

  • Michael Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
  • Marion Nestle: “Eat less, move more, eat lots of fruits and vegetables.”
  • Alice Waters: “Good food depends almost entirely on good ingredients.”
  • Michelle Obama: “You can begin in your own cupboard by eliminating processed food, trying to cook a meal a little more often, trying to incorporate more fruits and vegetables.”

I doubt many people would disagree with these food luminaries, with the possible exception of the major food companies selling us “edible food-like substances” (thanks Mr. Pollan). To learn more about why they might resist, I recommend reading “The Perils of Ignoring History” on Bill Marler’s blog, which draws potential parallels between Big Tobacco and Big Food.

If it were as easy as suggesting to people that they eat less processed food (and possibly paid more per calorie), which is intuitively obvious but doesn’t play well in the marketplace, we would be well on our way. We are not.

We need a game plan.

My recommendation is that we start with a vision of where we ideally want to be. This blog is dedicated to the vision of Sustainable Food on Every Kitchen Table™, and our journey toward that vision begins by attacking the point where consumers make their purchase decisions – food retail, especially supermarkets.

Supermarkets, which account for nearly 60 percent of sales of food at home in the U.S. (75% when you include supercenters and warehouse clubs), are where consumers are confronted hundreds of times a year with tens of thousands of food choices covering everything one might imagine…and likley tens of thousands of additional food products that they would never have imagined.

The vast inventories carried in these stores are supported by over $10 billion spent on sophisticated food advertising and approximately 17,000 new “food products” flooding the market every year, making today’s supermarkets highly efficient selling machines. Unfortunately, leading food companies make most of their money selling highly processed foods, made up of inexpensive ingredients from monoculture crops (e.g., corn, soy, wheat); major contributors to today’s health and environmental problems.

My last blog post provided a potential framework for designing a new, consumer-oriented retail experience that connects consumers with real food. Whether that idea, a derivative, or something entirely different is part of the solution, without Real Food-oriented shopping experiences, preferred by consumers, it is difficult to imagine slowing down or effectively evolving America’s mechanized food system.


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4 responses to “Innovating the Food Buying Experience

  1. This is a terrific, informative post. I’m enjoying following you Tweets and looking forward to more of the conversation. Your ideas surrounding grocery stores are especially interesting and I’d love to play them out a bit. My local Whole foods is giving me a tour next week so I can better understand how they source local food and where the breakdown (sometimes) occurs. I’m convinced that it’s only by asking these questions that we’ll ever see change. Nice stuff!

  2. I don’t see why asking people to eat more rationally should be conflated with organic options being less important. One is not the adversary of the other. Everyone should eat as well as they can….Income, knowledge, access and different levels of intent regarding what they wish their food choices to accomplish will vary…. A sustainable whole food system depends ultimately on land being cared for in a regenerative way. For now, certified organic is the primary way that has legally defined practices, nationally applied, in an audited system with third-party inspection… By all means, let’s get people eating food that is sustainably raised if they aren’t, but then keep asking how to improve quality of the food and the foodshed where it was grown to and beyond current organic standards.

    • Greg,

      Thanks for the comment. While I have suggested organic being less important, it remains, along with sustainability, the vision where all efforts must end up.

      The problem I am focusing on is the difficulty consumers have weeding through billions of dollars of food marketing, overloaded supermarket aisles and shelves, and all the related noise, to find real food to eat. In addition, that food is “packaged” (not processed) in ways that allow mainstream consumers to fit cooking and eating real food within their busy schedules, market penetration will be severely constrained. Finally, as market demand grows, it appears that we will face challenges on increasing supply of organic/sustainably grown food due to regulatory issues, land ownership, etc.

      My blog post was attempting to paint the picture in my head of what we are up against in putting Sustainable Food on Every Kitchen Table. It won’t be easy, but will definitely benefit from the great work the Rodale Institute is doing around organic solutions. It is so important that we all work together to achieve the desired changes.


      Rob Smart

  3. Mark Bittman’s comments – and your agreement – are perfectly in line with the Oldways philosophy that we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Some of the fringes of the foodie movement make it sound like there’s no point in trying if we can’t manage to eat 100% organic grass-fed local food, consumed in three hour meals on a bucolic hilltop.

    Lighten up, people. Just eat good food. We know what good food is (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, fish, etc.). And our stomachs tell us when we’ve had enough, if we’ll only listen. We do not need the latest diet or the latest technical report on nutrients to tell us what to do. We just have to have the personal will to decide that good food, shared around a table with family and friends, is a priority in life and to act on that priority.

    Cynthia Harriman,

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