Tag Archives: Innovation

Challenges in Expanding Regional Food Ventures

Note: This summary is from my newest post on The Snap Blog, where I will be blogging going forward.

When I blur my eyes, I see sustainable food on every kitchen table. The ramifications of this vision are tremendous, which is why pursing it is not for the faint of heart or timid. The obstacles are equally substantial, starting with an entrenched and massive industrial food system.

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Introducing The Snap Blog…Our New Home!

Hello Readers,

I’m guessing by now that at least some of you may have thought I fell off the face of the earth. Close.

Instead, about six months ago I jumped feet first into my own ProFood venture – Sugarsnap located in Burlington, Vermont’s Intervale. Candidly, I had no idea how consuming this transition was going to be and expected to continue writing on a regular basis.

Well, after putting together a comprehensive business plan and private placement memorandum, I am happy to report that we have nearly completed our initial fund raising, and will soon accelerate our expansion plans. These changes are allowing me to start breathing again about the critical issues addressed at Every Kitchen Table.

The exciting part is that I am now partnering with some great people that have their own stories to tell. So, with this post I am formally merging Every Kitchen Table into The Snap Blog, the official blog of Sugarsnap.

You will once again see me posting on a regular basis, and will get the added benefit of reading the well-informed thoughts of my Sugarsnap partners. It may take us a couple months to hit our stride, but rest assured we will and the content will be great.

See you on The Snap Blog!

Cheers,

Rob Smart (a.k.a., @Jambutter)

P.S. You can also follow Sugarsnap on Twitter and Facebook.

10 Things We Should Teach Every Kid about Food

Food is essential to our survival. It impacts our health and wellbeing. It has the power to bring people together.

Food can be manipulated in many ways, from cooking to processing to using it as fuel. It provides tremendous opportunities to create value, and, as such, food is big business.

Much of the food we eat starts as a simple seed, or one that has been genetically manipulated to achieve some desired objective. From there, food can be growing in any number of ways, from conventional to organic and beyond, before it finds its way to our plates.

Food touches nearly every aspect of live, so it is essential that we understand it in the fullest context possible to ensure we, as consumers, make well-informed, everyday decisions. Unfortunately, for many of us our days of being educated and/or changing our ways are mostly behind us.

That is why we must focus on our children by finding creative ways to reintroduce food in its broadest sense into their everyday activities, starting with school, in order to close the knowledge gap between farm and plate.

Here are the 10 things I would integrate into our children’s educational curriculum to give them a fighting chance at making the joys of sustainable food central in their lives.

  1. The Food We Eat – Since most kids have little knowledge of where the food they eat comes from, we start with an understanding of what we eat as a society. Showing them a simple breakdown of consumer food expenditures, e.g., 25% on fast food, will give them a sense of our food priorities. As kids mature, discussions about how our food choices impact other thing would evolve into a new Sustainable Economics (SE) track in middle and high schools. Sustainable Economics, in my mind, is the replacement for the traditional Home Economics, which carries too much baggage. As you will read below, SE shows up in a number of places.
  2. Farming in America & Abroad – If you are active in discussions regarding sustainable food, you have repeatedly heard about the knowledge gap that has grown over the years between consumers and where their food comes from. Ideally, kids at a young age should take field trips to diverse, working farms to see first-hand what goes on day after day on a farm. From there the discussion should turn to the history of farming in America, current trends, how farms are financed, what they grow/raise and so on. Along the way, kids should also be introduced to the idea of farming as a career, something that I can never recall hearing during my childhood.
  3. Plant Biology – Since kids love getting dirty, this might be one of the more popular topics during the elementary school years – playing in the dirt (soil). In addition to studying soil and its different compositions, every kid should witness firsthand the magic contained within a simple seed. Watching seeds germinate and grow into plants, bear fruit, die and return to the soil will help them understand one of the more important circles of life. With more basic science under their belts, attention can be turned to heirloom, hybrid and genetically modified seeds to expand their understanding of ways man manipulates seeds and why, as well as fertilizers and pesticides and their impacts on the water we drink, air we breathe and food we eat.
  4. Gardening – While understanding larger-scale farming operations is important, kids should also be taught the possibilities of human-scale gardening, something they can practice throughout their lives. This topic represents a cornerstone of my proposed Sustainable Economics curriculum since it gives kids the power to control where some of their food comes from, whether that food is used at school or taken home.
  5. Cooking – Another cornerstone of Sustainable Economics would be instruction on cooking, something that should be required just like physical education given the importance it plays in our health and wellbeing. Topics that can be superficially explored at the younger ages before more in-depth dives in middle and high schools might include techniques, tools, recipes, flavors, sensory experiences, chemistry, seasonal menus and more.
  6. Composting – Food waste is created throughout the food cycle, so teaching kids about the importance of composting is a final cornerstone of Sustainable Economics. Using Will Allen of Growing Power as an example, kids should be encouraged to embrace composting soil, dig their hands in it and get to know worms and other creatures working hard to break down our food waste. They should also learn the proper ways to use compost to help nourish the soil and help certain plants grow stronger and produce more tasty food.
  7. Industrial Food System – Moving into middle school, the emphasis on getting their hands dirty and familiarizing themselves with kitchens and cooking should be gradually replaced with expanding their understanding of food systems, i.e., how food is grown, processed and delivered to consumers. America’s industrialized food system could be nicely integrated into macro and micro economic studies, covering such topics as economies of scale, regional to global economies, industry consolidation, monopolies, process uniformity, etc. Kids should also be taught to contrast this dominate food system with historic systems, as well as (re)emerging regional food economies.
  8. Food Advertising – The food industry spends tens of billions of dollars every year promoting its food products. The level of sophistication used in food advertisements and marketing methodologies cannot be understated. Nor can its effectiveness at influencing choices people make about what, when and where they eat. Developing classroom exercises to help kids understand advertising techniques would go a long way toward ensuring that this highly targeted demographic learns to read between the lines.
  9. Government Programs – While it may seem a little dry on the surface, studying the changing role of our government in the food system could be turned into some pretty entertaining and impactful materials. Just look at some of the more popular food documentaries that have come out in the last couple of years, especially ones like King Corn. It may be difficult for kids to think about ways to influence government programs, but without a base of knowledge they won’t even bother trying.
  10. Food Entrepreneurship – When it comes to innovations in food, especially with regard to sustainable food, I have a strong bias toward teaching kids about the Pro Food framework I developed. Pro Food focuses primarily on regional food economies, so kids should also be exposed to entrepreneurs that are working to change the larger industrial food system mentioned above, since it will likely continue to be the primary source of food during their lifetimes. Like farming, there are many career opportunities in and around the food we eat, so it is important that we encourage young people to consider careers in sustainable food.

In the end, knowledge is power, and giving successive generations the power to demand fresh, environmentally sustainable and tasty food offers a glimmer of hope for the many advocates in the trenches today working to revolutionize our food systems.

Of course, like so many other things, getting sustainable food into school curriculums may be very difficult given many entrenched and powerful interests. The good news is that everything on this list can be adapted to our home lives. It will take a commitment of time, energy and probably a little money, but the results will be priceless.

Every Kitchen Table is a proud supporter of Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday and The Kathleen Show’s Prevention not Prescription initiatives.

SARE’s Farmer Rancher Grants – Helping Farmers to Market

Have you heard of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program? Since 1988, the SARE program has been helping advance profitable, environmentally sound and community oriented farm systems through grants to farmers and ranchers.

If haven’t heard of the SARE program, don’t worry; you’re not alone.

Thankfully, my friends over at Cooking Up A Story (CUpS) have developed the first in a wonderful series of stories showcasing the rich heritage, knowledge, and individual stories of some of our past farmer grant recipients. It starts with The Imperial Stock Ranch a 30,000 acre sheep ranch in Eastern Oregon, which began in 1871. CUpS does a wonderful job capturing the ranches challenges to its very survival, as well as its solution to direct,  market value-added yarn to retailers and apparel designers.

Please check out the complete story with video, and watch CUpS for future installments.

Great stuff!

From Fast Food Nation to Pro Food Ventures

In 2001, Houghton Mifflin Company published a book by Eric Schlosser titled Fast Food Nation –The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Much like the work of Upton Sinclair in his 1906 title The Jungle, Mr. Schlosser, an award-winning investigative journalist exposed how the explosive growth of fast food in America had “hastened the malling of our landscape, widened the chasm between rich and poor, fueled an epidemic of obesity, and propelled American cultural imperialism abroad.”

For a handful of people, this book provided enough incentive to act, but nowhere near the critical mass needed to show up on most radar screens. That started to change with Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, published in 2006 and the 2009 release of Food, Inc., a food documentary incorporating much of the work of Schlosser and Pollan. Still, unless you were seeking out information on America’s industrial food system, and specifically how it was negatively impacting health, regional economies, and the environment or global trade, you probably had no idea that there were significant problems with America’s abundant food system.

TIME Magazine changed that with its August 21, 2009 cover story titled Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food. TIME brought the story of industrial food to mainstream America through its 40 million readers and Web users worldwide. As America’s most trusted new source, it shifted the balance of the debate about our need to reform our food system toward the sustainable food advocates that have been waging a noble, but slow campaign. Here are some highlights from TIME describing how ripe the time is for innovations in how we grow, sell and prepare food in America:

  • “…our energy-intensive food system uses 19% of U.S. fossil fuels, more than any other sector of the economy.”
  • “And perhaps worst of all, our food is increasingly bad for us, even dangerous.” • “…obesity adds $147 billion a year to our doctor bills.”
  • “With the exhaustion of the soil, the impact of global warming and the inevitably rising price of oil — which will affect everything from fertilizer to supermarket electricity bills — our industrial style of food production will end sooner or later.”
  • “…quantity of fertilizer is flat-out scary: more than 10 million tons for corn alone — and nearly 23 million for all crops.”
  • “…about 70% of antimicrobial drugs used in America are given not to people but to animals, which means we’re breeding more of those deadly organisms every day.”

When you consider this was presented to at least 40 million Americans, a vast majority who don’t know where their food comes from, you get a sense of how this single article will likely impact the evolution of sustainable food. The TIME article’s author specifically states, “So what will it take for sustainable food production to spread? It’s clear that scaling up must begin with a sort of scaling down — a distributed system of many local or regional food producers as opposed to just a few massive ones.”

As sustainable food discussions move into the mainstream, so will the opportunities for entrepreneurs and existing companies to bring to market innovative approaches to selling higher quality, healthier foods to increasing percentages of consumers, businesses and institutions. As these companies grow, they have an increasingly realistic chance to break the near death grip that industrial food has put on America’s food system:

  • Seed Companies: What was once a highly diversified, regional industry is now controlled primarily by pharmaceutical and chemical companies, including Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta.
  • Farms: According to the USDA, “Small farms, while numerous, account for less than 2% of all U.S. farmland, while large farms account for 67%. Consequently, the growth in the number of large farms has increased the concentration of crop production.”
  • Meat Packers: According to Sustainable Table, four companies controlled processing of >80% of country’s beef and three of these same four companies joined a 4th in processing >60% of country’s pork. Four major companies in broiler chicken processing provide >50% of our chicken supply. Same for turkey meat.
  • Food Processors: The Top 50 U.S. processors accounted for $326 billion or ~25 percent of the global market. Add in European giants like Unilever, Nestle, Cadbury Schwebbs, Danone, etc., and you fast approach a majority of the market.
  • Food Retailers: Wal-Mart is at top of the heap with nearly $100 billion in food sales. The next 49 companies all report income over $1.0 billion dollars. On global scale, the USDA reports “Top 15 global supermarket companies account for >30% of sales.”

There are already examples of sustainable food innovations throughout the food chain, from Will Allen’s Growing Power to an alliance between Good Natured Family Farms and Ball Food Stores, to name a few. Early pioneers, with dirt on their hands, lessons learned and progress made, played a critical role in blazing trails for new ventures. Some of those companies have grown dramatically, e.g., Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (NASDAQ: GMCR; market cap of ~$2.5 billion). Others have been acquired by larger companies, e.g., Stonyfield Yogurt (acquired by Groupe Danone), Ben & Jerry’s (Unilever), Burt’s Bees (The Clorox Company). Still others have remained independent.

The next wave of ProFood start-ups will have the advantage of leveraging the many lessons learned by these pioneers. Unlike earlier sustainable food entrepreneurs, this next-generation will also have the benefit of a growing number of mission-driven investors showing up sustainable food conferences, e.g., Slow Money Alliance and New Seed Advisors, looking to drive sustainable food forward.

Extending the Pro Food Pathway

Guest Blogger: Carrie Oliver is the CEO & Founder of The Oliver Ranch Company and founded The Artisan Beef Institute. Carrie is dedicated to helping people learn more about what’s on their plate and discovering that, like a fine wine, a lot goes into raising better cattle. She blogs at Discover the World of Artisan Beef and Twitters under @OliverRanch.

What better way to shake off a bad case of writer’s block than to meet the origin of your last meal face-to-face?  Earlier this summer a fellow food entrepreneur, Rob Smart, had written a post on his Every Kitchen Table blog about Pro Food, a burgeoning post-organic food movement, to which I’d been trying to respond for weeks.  Casting around for a distraction I turned to Twitter only to see a post from one pastured pork farmer, Heather Walters (@Rosemont_Farm) to another, Neal Foley (@PodChef):

Heather:   @Podchef &^%$!! that was a horrid link!

Who can resist clicking through a link like that? Much to my surprise, I was met with an image of three heads in a wheelbarrow, two pigs and one cattle, the latter with shaggy black hair and horns.  Horrid perhaps to Heather, but even more haunting to me since Neal had so graciously served me some mouth-watering rib-eye steaks for dinner a few weeks before.

Me:            @Podchef Hmm, re: horrid links & chicken carcasses… is that the beef I tasted?

Neal:         @OliverRanch Re, the heads in the barrow? Yes, that bottom one was Torino the steer & some of his piggie friends.

I had just met my meat. And my writer’s block was cured.

What does all this have to do with Rob’s original post, and its follow up, The Five Stones of Pro Food?  Rob outlined a set of principles on which food entrepreneurs could draw to create and support a new, pro-consumer, pro-farmer food system.  The five stones are decentralization, triple bottom line, sustainable food, transparency, and accessibility.

I relate to Rob’s five principles; I founded my own company in part on principles like these.  But while these are great business and moral guidelines, they didn’t quite capture my heart or frankly, my stomach. At the end of the day, to truly drive change, I believe that food still has to be about food.  My heartstrings need a tug and my stomach has to yearn for this food.  My stomach is all about “food appeal” (flavor, texture, and other functional benefits) and my heart is all about community (emotional and experiential benefits).

As a fellow food entrepreneur, Rob has graciously allowed me to use the story of Torino the Steer to cast a couple more stones.

Consumer Feedback Results in Better Food

In a more decentralized, transparent food system we have the chance to create and celebrate feedback loops between farmers and consumers, so that producers can incorporate consumer appeal into their decision criteria.  With Torino the Steer, we have the ideal, you might even argue utopian scenario: the person who most influenced the flavor and texture of that beef ate at the same table as I, and the other main influencer, the butcher, was just one phone call away.

I gave feedback to Neal, “This beef is just delicious!  It has a great chew, straightforward personality and medium impression.  It has a sweet almost delicate start and is a bit herbal. It’s an ideal steak for someone just embarking on a journey of artisan beef discovery (what I call Gateway Beef™).”  Neal’s response?  “Well that’s interesting, there are actually 11 herbs growing on that pasture; they were planted there in the 1950s and have thrived ever since.”  Now Neal has his first confirmation that the herbs are a good thing, not just a random thing.

Imagine if every farmer could access that kind of feedback.  OK, granted we cannot all sit down with our farmers and share a meal together, but greater transparency should result in the consumer knowing who made their food and give them the ability, one way or another, to tell the producer what they find most appealing.

The value? I can buy beef from Neal and know that I’ll enjoy it. I also discovered that I like beef that is finished on herby pastures.  We both can tell others what the beef tastes like so they have an idea if they might like it, too.  And Neal can consider what he might do next time – stay the course or work to make his beef even better.

Of course this extreme case isn’t easily scalable and the next most proximate – farmers markets and CSA programs — also serve a limited market.  However, I think entrepreneurs should be excited by the possibilities of using the Internet and new retail formats to take these types of experiences to larger market segments.  As long as we create and maintain transparency, even at scale we can create or enable a continuous, self-reinforcing feedback loop between farm and fork, thus improving the flavor, texture, and overall quality of the food we eat.

Advantage:  Pro Food

Community

Sitting down to share a meal with friends, family, and strangers has long been a communal activity.  Together with knowing more about what is on my plate, I think we need to start reversing the disturbing trend towards depersonalizing our cooking and eating experiences.  It wasn’t that long ago that a natural part of the dinner conversation was about where the butcher sourced the turkey and how we simply must tell Mr. Jones that the milk from his Jersey cows is the only milk we buy.

Shopping in today’s big box stores, including conventional supermarkets, warehouse stores and so on is, comparatively speaking, a complete disconnect.  From a food-community point of view, we’ve become detached.  An unseen stock person stacks pre-wrapped consumables on the shelf at midnight.  Not that this impacts the food itself in any way, but this is about as far from an intimate food experience as one can get.

By way of contrast, eating Torino the Steer with Neal and his family was a supremely communal act. Having seen first hand the way this family loves their land, livestock, and the other food they raise, I enjoyed that meal and came to appreciate my food at a deeper level than had I purchased the salad, berry pie or rib-eye steaks anonymously at a supermarket.

Indeed, ask anyone who’s been to a dinner on a farm or met a producer at an in-store demonstration, farmers market, or CSA pick up: there is something about knowing the source of one’s food that creates a certain sense of community, if not bonding, with the people in who make our food.

While knowing everyone who had a hand in bringing every food item to our plates is impractical, we can begin to restore a sense of community around food simply by letting our customers know where it came from in the first place.  Who knows where that first baby step might take us?

In a Pro Food system we’ll also probably see each other a lot more.  Some entrepreneurs might create small footprint, neighborhood stores in which we will recognize and befriend other patrons and store employees over time.  I still remember shopping with my mom at Robert’s Market in Oakland.  Half the time spent shopping seemed to be chatting it up with the butcher or friends she ran into in the aisles.

This is not a clarion call for a return to the past.  For better or worse, big box supermarkets beat out mom & pop stores for a reason, namely price.  To their credit, Wild Oats and Whole Foods reintroduced the concept of knowledgeable employees and presented food artistically, taking some of the commodity out along the way. How can today’s entrepreneurs challenge the current retail business model to extend the reach of such community based shopping experiences beyond high-income urban centers?

Other entrepreneurs, including myself, might create online or other communities outside of brick and mortar to achieve similar goals.  Social media tools offer the opportunity to build personal relationships and create rich discussions across political, geographical, professional, or personal boundaries.  A case in point:  a recent Twitter-based #AgChat discussion on antibiotic use in livestock included sustainable food advocates, farmers, ranchers, public relations managers, trade associations, veterinarians, journalists, food bloggers, butchers, and lawyers.  Just about the most inclusive community you could imagine, with a total contribution much greater than the sum of the parts.

Advantage:  Pro Food

The opportunity to rethink our food system is not by nature limited to entrepreneurs.  In fact, I would argue that our successes will fall short of expectations if we try to innovate without taking advantage of the two big constituents that I have talked about here, namely the consumer, and the food community in its broadest sense.  Decentralization, triple bottom line, sustainable food, transparency, and accessibility are important pillars, but I’ll bet our future will be brightest if we engage the consumer and encourage community at every juncture along our path.

Is Buying Food Locally More Important than Eating Local Food?

One of my favorite times of the year is upon us – The Harvest Season.

This weekend, my family will trek out to the Wellspring Harvest Fest – A good ol’ hoe down and celebration of the season!  Wellspring Farm is the community supported agriculture (CSA) program we have supported for the last four years, and the Fest is an incredible celebration of the season’s bounty, where the Wellspring CSA community gathers to eat incredible food, avoid rotten tomato on our faces in the infamous tomato toss (might need to renamed the “late blight” toss this year), tour the farm on a hay ride and add our own painted touches to the farm’s annual Harvest Fest sign.

In a couple more weeks, we will be joining many people throughout Vermont and I believe the country in an “Eat Local” challenge, where for one week my family will commit to eating as much locally grown or raised food as possible.

These celebrations, while wonderful opportunities to connect with our local/regional food community, also make me think about what we will do over the remaining 50 weeks of the year. Will conventional food thinking settle back in? It seems likely for most people, making the challenge of building up regional food economies all the more difficult.

Does it have to be that way? Are there things we can do to support regional food throughout the year, especially in regions where the growing season is short and/or the breadth of products grown and raised are narrow?

There is one thing that immediately jumps to mind. Raise the importance of “Buy Local” to the same level afforded “Eat Local,” since without a thriving farm-gate-to-your-plate regional food infrastructure, progress toward more sustainable food systems will be slow going. Seems easy enough…on the surface, but rebuilding and strengthen regional food economies will be the farthest thing from “easy.”

Over the last 50 years, America’s food landscape has changed considerably, especially in terms of how power and control over the food we eat has concentrated in the hands of large-scale, and often global corporate interests. Here’s a snap shot that I’m betting most people haven’t seen before:

  • Seed Companies: What was once a highly diversified, regional industry is now controlled primarily by pharmaceutical and chemical companies, including Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta. And while most of Monsanto’s press is about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the company has quietly bought up a large number of seed companies to gain access to a rapidly expanding seed patent portfolio. Dupont is following suit.
  • Farms: According to the USDA, “Small farms, while numerous, account for less than 2 percent of all U.S. farmland, while large farms account for 67 percent. Consequently, the growth in the number of large farms has increased the concentration of crop production.” What is especially problematic with this trend is that farms in the middle have all but disappeared, which are the types of farms that will be needed to support regional food systems.
  • Meat Packers: According to Sustainable Table, four companies controlled processing of over 80% of the country’s beef and three of these same four companies (along with an additional fourth) process over 60% of the country’s pork. Four major companies in broiler chicken processing provide over half of the country’s chicken supply. Same for turkey meat. Large scale meat packing operations don’t do regional well (prefer CAFOs) or local at all.
  • Food Processors: Euromonitor International reports that the packaged food industry is worth almost $1.6 trillion. While there’s some debate about how accurate that number is, consider that the Top 50 U.S. processors alone accounted for $326 billion or nearly 25 percent of the global market. Add in European giants like Unilever, Nestle, Cadbury Schwebbs (which Kraft is attempting to gain control of in a $16.7 billion takeover), Danone and others, and you fast approach a majority of the market. Leaves little room on food retailers’ shelves for local or regional processed foods.
  • Food Retailers: Wal-Mart is at the top of the heap with nearly $100 billion in food sales. The next 49 companies all report income over $1.0 billion dollars. On a global scale, the USDA reports that “The top 15 global supermarket companies account for more than 30 percent of world supermarket sales.” Serious concentration that is buying up or crushing regional food chains and killing off mom-and-pop stores left and right.

With this in mind, take a couple minutes to consider your local food retail landscape.

How many locally or regionally-owned food stores or member-owned food cooperatives are there? If any, how much impact do you think they have on your region’s food economy? In other words, do they represent enough demand to support regional farmers, distribution, processing, etc.? Check out their shelves next time you shop there (or make a special trip if you haven’t shopped there before). Where do you think that food is coming from?

As each of gets a clearer picture, which may seem bleak at first, you should also see tremendous opportunities to change how consumers interface with the food they eat.

For example, imaging developing innovative, regional food retail formats open every day (v. once-a-week farmers markets and CSA programs) that provide consumers with real choices in the food they buy. Such choices, financed by our three votes per day (i.e., breakfast, lunch and dinner), will empower every one of us to buy more of the food we eat from local sources. This increasing demand for regionally grown, raised and processed food, as well as other sustainable foods, will justify increased investments in the infrastructure needed to provide more regional foods to consumers every day. Instead of spiraling down, as is the case with the industrialized food system, we will be spiraling up.

Ultimately, the choice of how we spend our food dollars is up to us. But until we have more convenient (e.g., open seven days a week), transparent (e.g., origin labeling) food retail options to choose from, do we really have a choice? Not as much choice as we deserve, so let’s get started in changing that.

Your first task – after finishing your successful “Eat Local” challenge this harvest season, assuming you participated – is to increase your financial support (i.e., spending our food dollars) of local and regional food retailers.

And if you can’t find one, then maybe you or someone you know should consider opening one yourself.

Happy Harvest!