Food System 2.0: Can New Approaches Make Local Food Happen?

What is the price of food? $3.99 for a gallon of milk? $0.99 for an energy bar? Complex market and policy forces make those prices. Its a process that starts far from the point of sale.

Centralizing our food into fast food chains and supermarkets causes the farms that feed the system to scale up into mega-sized operations. The idyllic, diverse farms of American lore were long ago converted into monocrop fields of staple grains, hog farms with hundreds of thousands of head and distribution centers bigger than football fields.

A moment at the supermarket... thanks to flickr user Fazen

A moment at the supermarket... thanks to flickr user Fazen

In economic terms, food has simply migrated to areas with the a comparative advantage in production. California, for example, now grows over 50% of all the vegetables in the entire country – simply because they have a 12 month growing season. But how do you make food scale back to something more reasonable, a new system in which communities connect with the food being grown there? Is it even possible, nay desirable?

We saw a couple examples of new approaches to these questions in the San Francisco area during our Tour of America recently. One deals with technology while the other with community. Both are necessary components in what should become Food System 2.0.

From Ideals to Reality

On a sunny afternoon in San Francisco, we sat down with Melanie Cheng, founder of Farmsreach.com. FarmsReach does what it says: it puts farms directly within reach of their marketplace. But don’t think of the service as a digital farmers market, as we made the mistake of doing. The genius of the system comes in their measured approach to tackling the economics of local food.

Cheng started out as a technical writer, working with Silicon Valley giant Cisco. This technical background came in handy as she began to turn her attention to food. The environmental impact of agriculture was her first focus, which culminated in the non-profit OMorganics.com.

She quickly realized the main obstacle in the sustainable agriculture world was a lack of information and marketplace – causing a shift from environmental issues into more broadly seeing food access as a uniting factor. This revelation began to shift Om Organics from information to technology, out of the non-profit sphere into what we know today as FarmsReach.com.

Their first prototype was to connect restaurant chefs with farmers through farm co-ops and aggregators – a focus that proved too time consuming to be profitable. The core need to connect farms with commercial buyers still remained however, so with their first public release FarmsReach.com, the focus was helping farms sell directly to buyers. Cheng used an interesting approach to get these small farms to scale up to restaurant sizes: combine them.

What Farms Reach Looks Like

What Farms Reach Looks Like

It was with larger restaurant accounts that could do multiple orders at once that Farmsreach.com was born. The service aggregates sellers – in this case farmers – so restauranteurs and institutional food buyers have an easier way to interface directly with sustainable and local growers.

Cheng’s team has tested the current platform in seven different regions, trying to slowly build out new features the community requests, like ratings for participants and inventory management for restaurants. The platform is young having only formally launched earlier this year, but it was our impression that the combination of a great idea, a strong team and patient investors will eventually make FarmsReach a big commercial component of a burgeoning new food system.

The Smaller Side of Food

But what if you aren’t a large restaurant? How do you get access to better food? Sara Weihmann, co-founder and director of All Edibles sees edible landscaping as filling that important gap in the current food system. After completing a Green MBA in 2006, Weihmann looked at various environmental and social justice issues like green building and biodiesel production before the food world came calling.

Weihmann and her co-workers at All Edibles add edible plants to existing homes in the form of pleasant looking landscaping mostly in the ‘East Bay’ area of the San Francisco region, Berkeley and Oakland. They help homeowners connect with their food by teaching seasonal eating, planting in cycles to ensure constant food production and generally educating their customers on how to grow food.

An example of an All Edibles Installation in the Bay Area

An example of an All Edibles Installation in the Bay Area

The real take home message with their services is turning consumers into producers, mostly through educating clients on the processes that make local food a superior choice to conventional supermarkets. Improved local environments, food quality and convenience become selling points over the predictability of supermarkets after the clients see their food coming out of their own yards, Weihmann explained. Her goal is to eventually transform her work into a curriculum for schools and nursing homes, educating those that usually have the least connection with food – and the most time on their hands to participate.

The Economic Side of Food

These diverse food system interventions are merely novel at this time, experiments into a new method of food distribution that aims beyond the bottom line. No new system will succeed without a profitable economic base.

income_distribution

Food Income Chart - click for detail

Our specialized system has driven the costs of food down to levels that are the envy of the world – which is hard to argue – or compete – against. Americans spend only about 10-12% of their income on food, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (see this NYTimes infographic to better understand). That’s one of the lowest percentages in the world. The foods that make up that chunk of the economy are heavily influenced by subsidies from the Farm Bill, a sprawling piece of legislation that incentivizes certain crops. For example, corn farmers have received a staggering $56 billion in subsidies over the last 10 years.

Farms Reach and All Edibles are attempts to change that paradigm. They are trying to circumvent the traditional food system by introducing market forces and genuine community elements to what has long been a faceless production. Remedying the larger policy apparatus around food will have to follow these trailblazing attempts to augment the system but there is another tangential issue at hand here which could change the debate – health care.

From Reaction to Prevention

As the US contemplates how to remake the health care system, the Congressional Budgeting Office reminds us that America already spends 16% of its GDP on healthcare, by far the highest percentage in the world.  Using nutrition and novel market attempts like Farms Reach and All Edible to get the right foods into the right hands could be an important part of getting Americans to put more money into the food side of the equation – and less into fixing preventable diseases later on. Preventative medicine interventions have long been ignored, said Patricia Lebensohn, Associate Professor of Clinical Family and Community Medicine at The University of Arizona’s Integrative Medicine in Residency Program.

Mediterranean Watermelon Salad, by the Foodista Blog

Mediterranean Watermelon Salad, by the Foodista Blog

Our current food and health states in America are efficient monetarily but woefully inefficient in other less measurable ways. Lebensohn spoke to the ways in which the Tucson-based interactive program gets front line medical practitioners to consider the person on more holistic level – and a big component of that is nutrition intervention. University of Arizona preaches a Mediterranean diet – heavy in whole grains, vegetables and fish – as a good approach for most practitioners. Frequently, the same residents receive training in how to use diet as a tool to make the body heal itself, added Lebensohn.

Connecting food to health is a major aim of the University’s program – but it goes hand in hand with other environmental, social and moral aspects of the food system that need updating. Approaching this problem from both the educational/government side like Lebensohn and the Weil Center while using new ventures from the likes of Cheng and Weihmann are just the kind of multi-faceted, entrepreneurial approaches to these large questions that are uniquely American.

Remember, it was only about 10,000 short years ago that we even discovered farming in the first place. It shouldn’t take that long to integrate these methods into a food system that nourishes us into the next century – and the one after that.

  • Le

    Wow, that’s pretty eye opening. Keep up the good/food fight. We believe in John Serrao.

  • Le

    Wow, that’s pretty eye opening. Keep up the good/food fight. We believe in John Serrao.

  • Eric Hammer

    I think your post makes the mistake of assuming that local farming is beneficial in and of itself. There are greater costs to local food production than just dollars, among which are greater energy requirements stemming from increased use of fertilizers, pesticides and other growth promoting products required.
    Many who advocate local farming fail to account for the fact that while corn raised in your county might not have to be transported so far to market, thus saving CO2 emissions, those savings are quickly overshadowed by the increased costs of nitrogen fixation for fertilizers. Interestingly, these costs do not even need to be terribly high, considering that transportation from the farm to the store is relatively efficient, with thousands of ears of corn per tractor trailer, compared to the cost of getting the corn from the store to your home, with say 10 ears per car. Failing to account for this end to end supply chain effect, along with ignoring most of the economic realities of farming, is a major issue with most of the “Buy/Grow Local” movement.
    Now, this is not to say that there is not a good reason to buy from local farmers, such as taste, local relationships or the like. However, saying that buying locally makes sense for the environment is largely false, except, perhaps, for very limited examples. Price signals will tell those listening that more inputs are required to grow produce in Buffalo NY for consumption there than Iowa.

    I do, however, agree that government agriculture subsidies do a great deal of harm by distoring these price signals and creating incentives for production that differs from what consumers want.

  • Eric Hammer

    I think your post makes the mistake of assuming that local farming is beneficial in and of itself. There are greater costs to local food production than just dollars, among which are greater energy requirements stemming from increased use of fertilizers, pesticides and other growth promoting products required.
    Many who advocate local farming fail to account for the fact that while corn raised in your county might not have to be transported so far to market, thus saving CO2 emissions, those savings are quickly overshadowed by the increased costs of nitrogen fixation for fertilizers. Interestingly, these costs do not even need to be terribly high, considering that transportation from the farm to the store is relatively efficient, with thousands of ears of corn per tractor trailer, compared to the cost of getting the corn from the store to your home, with say 10 ears per car. Failing to account for this end to end supply chain effect, along with ignoring most of the economic realities of farming, is a major issue with most of the “Buy/Grow Local” movement.
    Now, this is not to say that there is not a good reason to buy from local farmers, such as taste, local relationships or the like. However, saying that buying locally makes sense for the environment is largely false, except, perhaps, for very limited examples. Price signals will tell those listening that more inputs are required to grow produce in Buffalo NY for consumption there than Iowa.

    I do, however, agree that government agriculture subsidies do a great deal of harm by distoring these price signals and creating incentives for production that differs from what consumers want.

  • http://www.nutritionwonderland.com John Serrao

    Eric-

    The general idea of the article is to show innovative solutions to getting local foods – which tend to be better quality – in the hands of more people. Your attack of the CO2 side of the equation may be valid. I’m not that well versed in the carbon footprint from production versus transportation of the goods.

    However, I attended an ERS discussion of local food production where the supply chain was vigorously discussed. If you can, check out “Environmental, Economic, and Social Impacts of Local Food Supply Chains: Checks, Balances and Trade-offs,” David Oglethorpe, Newcastle Business School, United Kingdom. It should be about 1/2 way through the webcast transcript at this link:

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/21424032/USDA-ERS-Symposium-on-Local-Foods-The-Economics-and-Supply-Chain-Issues

    As a corollary, centralized food production tends to produce foods with incredibly long shelf lives – using that Iowa corn. It often has a terrible nutritional profile as well, leading to a costly cascade years down the line. Its hard to connect the dots but thats one of the main goals of this site.

    Insightful commentary on your part though, thanks for the addition

  • http://www.nutritionwonderland.com John Serrao

    Eric-

    The general idea of the article is to show innovative solutions to getting local foods – which tend to be better quality – in the hands of more people. Your attack of the CO2 side of the equation may be valid. I’m not that well versed in the carbon footprint from production versus transportation of the goods.

    However, I attended an ERS discussion of local food production where the supply chain was vigorously discussed. If you can, check out “Environmental, Economic, and Social Impacts of Local Food Supply Chains: Checks, Balances and Trade-offs,” David Oglethorpe, Newcastle Business School, United Kingdom. It should be about 1/2 way through the webcast transcript at this link:

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/21424032/USDA-ERS-Symposium-on-Local-Foods-The-Economics-and-Supply-Chain-Issues

    As a corollary, centralized food production tends to produce foods with incredibly long shelf lives – using that Iowa corn. It often has a terrible nutritional profile as well, leading to a costly cascade years down the line. Its hard to connect the dots but thats one of the main goals of this site.

    Insightful commentary on your part though, thanks for the addition

  • Bridgett

    Hi John,

    Great article. Are you familiar with the website localharvest.org? I stumbled upon the website last week. You can search for organic farms and other farm sources in your hometown area. You can even order produce over the internet and have it delivered to your home. It’s a great resource for individuals to find and buy locally grown produce.

    Bridgett
    Syracuse, NY

  • Bridgett

    Hi John,

    Great article. Are you familiar with the website localharvest.org? I stumbled upon the website last week. You can search for organic farms and other farm sources in your hometown area. You can even order produce over the internet and have it delivered to your home. It’s a great resource for individuals to find and buy locally grown produce.

    Bridgett
    Syracuse, NY

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