March 27, 2017
It’s early Friday morning on a summer day in the Arkansas Valley. The small farmer, already sweating and tired from picking, cleaning and boxing his produce, feeding the hogs and other animals, and changing the irrigation water, is loading his worn out truck with the day’s deliveries. One hundred miles later he arrives at his first drop in Colorado Springs. A shiny new delivery truck is blocking the alley at the rear of the locally owned restaurant. The farmer, with evening chores waiting, is hurrying to make his deliveries. As he waits, he’s thinking a truck like that sure would be nice, especially with its comfortable seat and air conditioning. He’s told to wait until the truck finishes unloading. Surprised and confused, the farmer sees his very own produce, in his own boxes, coming off the truck – the same produce he delivered earlier in the week to a retail grocery store customer. The restaurant buyer, cigarette dangling from his lips, happily picks through the half-priced produce, thinking about his menu. Excited to see cheap items that will greatly reduce his food cost, he rejects the farmer’s order and sends him on his way.
Unfortunately, the same shiny new truck appears at other stops throughout the day. Finally back home after dark and finished with chores, the farmer sorts through his mail. Along with bills and some junk there’s an envelope from the retail grocery store, the same customer that gave his produce away to the competitor he saw parked at many of the same restaurants earlier in the day!
In the envelope is a bill demanding payment for what the retail margin would have been had his produce sold. At least the hogs will be happy, he mutters to himself. They won’t care that their meal just traveled 200 miles before returning to where it began. Wife and kids already asleep, there’s no supper waiting and it will be another short night as he prepares to head back to the Springs for the farmers market early the next morning, where shoppers will pick through his produce, leaving behind whatever is blemished or bruised, on their way to a weekend soccer game.
Bitter reality behind the “farm to table” fable
This snapshot of a day in the life of a small farmer shows why the retail-to-restaurant concept of grocery stores dumping excess inventories on the restaurant and institutional food sector is so damaging, and yet so brilliant, for the modern food industry. Big retailers like the appearance of abundance, with their overflowing colorful displays. Most of what the big food retailers sell is very cheap, high margin, industrially produced food. Waste is calculated into their margins and into what they are willing to pay their suppliers. In many cases, the farmer is a vendor who helps finance the retailer, taking payment only if the product sells, and likely with considerable delay.
The retail-to-restaurant model is similar to Walmart’s relationship to the dollar stores, except better. Dumping their waste into the food service sector doesn’t compete with new sales. None of these players have any interest in increasing what the farmer gets for what he produces; they are all in the business of driving prices to unrealistic lows.
Also, it’s a win-win for big grocery retailers if their waste can be used to destroy the local/regional farm-to-table food movement, which they see as a threat, since it exists outside of their control and reduces their monopoly power.
Treating the symptom not the problem
Big Food’s monopoly has eliminated the critical supply and demand relationship between food producers and consumers. Farmers know that over-production, especially of a perishable product, kills the price. A cabbage farmer from New York State once said, “If I have any cabbage in excess of my demand, I’m better off plowing it under, lest I destroy the price for all my cabbage. At least I’m feeding my soil.”
Multinational agribusiness firms have monopolized the marketplace. They write farming, food and trade policy. They leverage farmer against farmer, region against region, and country against country to drive commodity prices as low as possible. As a result their foreign food — including rotten beef from Brazil and chicken from China — has far easier access to the lucrative U.S. markets than our own family farmers.
Since the 1996 farm bill, corporate controlled farm policy has promoted a heavily industrialized, “get bigger or get out,” strip-mining approach to farming that incentivizes farmers to plant from “fence row to fence row.” This over-production has provided cheap commodities to middlemen processors, distributors, and retailers who have posted shamefully high profits year after year, at the direct expense of farmers, ranchers and consumers. This failed policy has created massive food waste, while contributing to farmer bankruptcies, loss of rural communities, historic soil loss, environmental degradation and declining human health.
A new-fangled tech start-up, modeled on “Uber” or “Airbnb,” doesn’t address the real problem of food waste. In fact, from the scene described above it’s easy to see how it ends up undercutting the farmers who make farm-to-table and truly good local food possible. Wonderful non-profit organizations like Colorado Springs Food Rescue and Seeds Community Café are already addressing the distribution problem of how to get leftover food to those who need it, and they are doing it with great dedication and efficiency. Those organizations deserve our unwavering support.
In contrast, the opportunistic mindset behind FoodMaven, of using steeply discounted food to make a buck, will only make it more difficult to re-localize, re-humanize and regenerate healthy food systems in the long run.
Agriculture – Five areas that demand urgent attention!
The Faith, food and the Environment document offers five urgent areas to be addressed if we are to reduce global poverty and hunger:
• Globalization of Industrialized Agriculture — the world market and expanded industrialized methods forces many local family and small-scale farmers off their land and into poverty. This is occurring both in developing countries and here in the U.S.
• Financialization — agriculture is increasingly and exclusively thought of in terms of profit only, which may result in many short-sighted practices which have harmful results.
• Agricultural Knowledge and Technology — new technology has created solutions to many perplexing problems, but often the implementation threatens ecological sustainability. Additionally, large agribusinesses may be driving the research at the expense of smaller operations.
• Technocracy — an overemphasis on examination of problems only through technical perspectives which often prevents consideration of larger human concerns.
• Ecological Impacts and Balances — excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has often resulted in degradation of the natural environment. This has not only harmed the poor and marginalized members of society, but it also threatens long-term ecological sustainability.
FoodMaven’s approach to addressing food waste violates more or less every one of the five areas the document sites as critical in feeding the world.