Tag Archives: Boulder

10 Innovative Sustainable Food Retailers

There is plenty of talk, especially online, about all the problems associated with our conventional, industrialized food system, me included.  And while there are significant challenges ahead in migrating toward more sustainable approaches to feeding people real food, I want to highlight a number of innovative retail solutions that are blazing trails for the rest to follow.

Here are 10 retail concepts I find intriguing (presented in alphabetical order).  In addition to a brief description, I am highlighting key strengths in supporting a more sustainable approach to food.

  1. Farm Fresh To You (Capay Valley, CA) – customer friendly, flexible and convenient certified organic CSA program serving 800 members from over 240 acres; home or office delivery options; no formal commitment required (cancel or suspend deliveries at any time); some customization of weekly delivery (eliminate items or add additional servings); mid-size farm CSA program with member numbers significantly greater than typical CSA farms
  2. FamilyFarmed.org (Oak Park, IL) – Mission is to expand production, marketing and distribution of locally grown and responsibly produced food and goods, in order to enhance the social, economic and environmental health of our communities; offers directory of CSA farms with delivery information; manages FamilyFarmed EXPO (three-day fall harvest festival and celebration of local foods and goods); developing product label program; large scale implementation of local, sustainable food
  3. FarmsReach (Bay Area, CA) – “the web hub for local grub” is building a web-based platform that offers a simple way for buyers to order food from local producers through delivery or local markets; pushing into new, easier to implement farmer-to-wholesale pathways
  4. Intervale Center (Burlington, VT) – manage 350 acres of farmland, nursery, compost production, trails, and wildlife corridors; developed Food Hub (connecting farmers to profitable market opportunities) and Food Basket (multi-farm CSA serving 125 members via 7 workplace drop off points); since 1980s, the Intervale has played a critical role in developing the Burlington community’s interest and support of local foods
  5. Know Your Farms (Davidson, NC) – multi-farm, year-round CSA program with limited customization of weekly box; introducing new “meal-in-a-box” pilot program that provides entire 4-person meal with local ingredients and cooking instructions; experimenting with new ways to deliver food that will be more valuable than random boxes
  6. Pete’s Greens (Craftsbury, VT) – year-round CSA program integrating farm and local products; utilizes wholesale delivery routes to drop off shares to 250 members; sales have been steadily migrating toward retail; reaching well beyond his farms location, Pete Johnson is pushing toward regional CSA programs (beyond local)
  7. Recipease (London, UK) – what list would be complete without a celebrity project, in this case “The Naked Chef” – Jamie Oliver; his first food and kitchen shop is designed to help anyone learn to cook and make great food; customers will be able to “assemble a brilliant meal in around 10 minutes”; bottom line: Mr. Oliver is helping get more people into their kitchens
  8. Sunflower Farmers Market (Boulder, CO) – “Serious Food…Silly Prices” is behind this growing chain of full-service grocery stores with emphasis on high quality natural and organic produce; founded and led by Wild Oats founder Mike Gilliland; also see Sprouts Farmers Market (AZ); both of these mini Whole Foods are part of trend toward smaller stores (10-20,000 square feet)
  9. The Organic Dish (Boulder, CO) – offering healthy, simple to make, and delicious ready-to-cook (frozen) organic meals and dinner kits utilizing local products; online or in-store order/deliver options; offers on-site do-it-yourself meal preparation parties for small groups (see Recipease)
  10. Three Stone Hearth (Berkeley, CA) – TSH is a worker-owned cooperative, offering nutrient dense foods to homes and families around the San Francisco Bay Area through what it calls a community supported kitchen (CSK); foods offered include soups, stews, cultured vegetables and coolers, sauces, prepared whole grain dishes; seems like a great model that could be customized to adapt to other regions

There are clearly a lot of really smart, energetic, and (in some cases) well-funded people attacking the challenges in our food system from multiple angles.  Over time, it is these efforts and those to follow that will make a real difference in getting more people to eat real food.

And if I missed companies or organizations that you feel should have made “the list”, please add them in the comments section so that we can raise our collective awareness even further.


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Why Community Supported Agriculture Isn’t Enough

What isn’t to like about community supported agriculture (CSA)?

Farmers receive significant upfront cash flow before the growing season to help cover expenses.  And 3-6 months later they get to sell their food at near-retail prices, giving them considerably better chances of surviving.  Consumer “members” feel good about helping typically regional farmers, who in return help members learn about where their food comes from and how to eat better with farm-fresh food.  I doubt any one would argue that its a mutually-beneficial relationship.

But what about the long-term potential of CSA programs in helping solve the large-scale sustainable food challenges we face?

With 12,549 CSA farms in 2007 (0.6% of all farms), these programs represent a tiny fraction of U.S. food sales, which totaled over $1.1 trillion that year, according to the USDA.  Drill down further and you find that food sales from “farmers, processors, wholesalers, and other” were less than 0.6% of the 2007 total (with CSA sales being a fraction of that percentage).  Try as I might, I can’t see CSA farms ever taking a noticeable share of the U.S. food market.

That doesn’t mean I am advocating throwing the baby out with the bath water.  In fact, I fully expect CSA sales to continue their rapid growth, while shining a spotlight on the increasingly important American farmer. It is also my hope that such attention will encourage more people, especially younger generations, to consider sustainable farming as a career.  But for now, we need to broaden our thinking about solutions that can scale, while still satisfying the needs of farmers and consumers alike.

Building on CSA Lessons Learned

First, we should learn from the over two decades of experience gained since the first CSA program launched in the U.S.  Marcia Ruth Ostrom of Washington State University has done an effective job doing that in a study she conducted to investigate the “strengths and weaknesses of the organizational configurations, tactics, and outcomes of CSA as a social movement.”  Her 10-year study of 24 CSA farms serving major metropolitan areas in Minnesota and Wisconsin collected data on (1) farmer participation, (2) member participation, (3) member-farmer relationships, and (4) farm-to-farm interactions.

What Ms. Ostrom found was an eye-opener for me personally, especially her discussion of the burdens CSA programs put on the farmers themselves. Here are some key highlights of her findings (I encourage you to read the study for yourself):

  • CSA farms produce >40 crops for CSA shares v. conventional farms growing 1-2 commodity crops; “logistics…turned out to be more challenging than most had initially realized”;
  • Farms don’t receive hands-on consumer support originally envisioned; shifts burden of starting, administering and sustaining CSA to farmer;
  • Many CSA farms struggle with high member turnover and apathy;
  • Farmers setting prices in line with conventional food system, not on real costs of production (CSA vision);
  • Many CSA programs fold after 1-2 years, primarily due to economic, health and quality of life issues (in that order);
  • Most CSA members are middle-class, urban, white, and highly educated (limited socio-economic reach)

When you consider Ms. Ostrom’s findings regarding member experiences, things get more interesting, and even a little concerning.

People join CSA programs for a diverse set of reasons: wanting fresh, nutritious produce; buying local; supporting small-scale farmers; and caring for the environment.  All great reasons, but notice that “helping farmers out using my own two hands” didn’t make the cut.  It’s why members leave that makes me seriously question how far CSA programs can reach beyond their current demographic.

According to the study, 36 percent of members cited supermarket withdrawal as their reason for leaving their CSA program, characterized as “the wrong vegetables in the wrong quantities at the wrong time.”  In other words, consumers wanted more control over the food they purchase.  Perhaps this wouldn’t big such a big deal if it weren’t for the fact that these people self-selected into CSA programs in the first place.  Apparently, those reasons couldn’t overcome the inconveniences of the CSA format.

Where does that leave us?

Envisioning New Retail Experiences

We need to find innovative, new ways to bring local and/or sustainably grown food to broader segments of the population, in place of the highly processed food that dominate today’s supermarket aisles, which makes it very hard to imagine the conventional food system embracing such ideas.  We need to offer farmers financial benefits similar to those offered by CSA programs (e.g., predictable revenues, cash flow support, near-retail margins), but without the major headaches associated with managing a CSA program.  We need to continue helping consumers migrate toward eating more “real food” at home, something CSA programs have done quite well.

The good news is that there are lots of smart, energized, talented people working on such solutions all around us. What we ultimately need are new retail experiences capable of significantly growing sales of sustainably grown food, which requires that they be able to effectively compete over time with the dominate players in our conventional food system.  What I see when I close my eyes is an alternative food infrastructure taking increasingly large chunks of market share away from those player, while building strong regional economies built on regional food systems.

Blur your eyes and I bet you see it too…

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