A truly just and equitable food system may not be possible within the current economic paradigm.
Forces that supported the initial growth of the food movement are weakening as more groups and farm entities compete for the same resources and markets.
This undermines the collaborative spirit required for systemic changes.
Eaters, farmers and farm workers, and values-based distributors need to address the inequities of the food system together as allies not adversaries.
A "Both+And" strategy that inserts social values inside the mainstream food system is required as we continue to explore and support alternative food production and delivery models.
Organic apple farms in the Northeast are threatened by a rapidly growing organic apple industry in the Northwest U.S.
TALKING WITH Laura Edwards-Orr*
of Red Tomato
Contributor: Mark Phillips
Red Tomato, a Northeast food distribution nonprofit based in Plainville-MA and founded in 1996, nurtures relationships of trust and collaborativeness across the regional food movement, striving “to bring transparency, sustainability, and equity” to all food business practices. Among its initiatives is an Eco certification program for orchard produce; the Farming and Food Narrative Project, fostering more effective and nonpolarizing public conversations about sustainable agriculture; and a pilot project with the Equitable Food Initiative that engages with farm workers to improve workplace training and worker well being.
Here, Laura Edwards-Orr speaks on a wide range of topics, from collaboration as a “mission-based” response to the consolidation taking place in the food movement; the food movement’s uneasy relationship to race and equity; the need for a more holistic, inclusive approach to food system change that addresses the broad systemic inequities of our economy that underly how food is produced, distributed, and consumed; and the challenge of ensuring that “farm of origin” doesn’t get lost in the value chain.
In reflecting on how the food movement has evolved since her initial involvement in it beginning in 2002, Laura shared that “food as a bridge” became an important organizing principle for connecting otherwise separate stakeholders:
One of the things we saw at that moment and which built the foundation of the food movement we have today is that all sorts of activists began to see food as a bridge, “Everybody eats,” so let’s figure out how to bring communities together and orient values and issues they care about and use that as a way to grow our numbers, bring people together, and find intersectionality (to use language that wasn’t around in 2002). The idea of food as a bridge was very energizing, bringing disparate groups together, bringing young people into the movement.
Laura reflects on the challenges of shifting market conditions, a changing philanthropic context, and saturation of non-profit providers like Red Tomato:
What’s been interesting to observe over time is that while the idea of "food as a bridge" was such a tremendous opportunity in the beginning, as the movement has mature the market has gotten more difficult and the philanthropic space has gotten more difficult [to navigate for non-profits]. Consequently the forces that supported the growth of the movement are weakening to some extent (from my perspective), and we now have a dynamic where multiple groups are competing for the same resources and perhaps reinforcing a situation where folks are working in their individual lanes. This is possibly undermining our ability to collaborate collectively and maximize the movement as a whole towards the systemic change that the growers still really need, despite progress we’ve made around consumer demand.
On social justice and economic inequality in the food movement:
I think one of the most important things the food movement has done, and particularly in the last five to ten years, is the examination of its relationship to race and equity. And really to try and expose and make visible the systemic racism and inequity that’s very much hard-wired into the existing food system. That has ranged from organizations investing in the personal work of their employees to help relate to and understand those issues, to actual programming that’s trying to bring women and people of color into the movement, into production, etc.
And where I think it comes into the arc of the movement I was describing is that as we’ve done that work (and I would say philanthropy has swung hard in that direction for very justifiable reasons), it becomes harder to hold the race and equity work in one hand and the grower and their economic context in another hand, particularly when the large majority of growers in the food system are white. In looking at the work of organizations like Red Tomato and many others in the food system—trying to bolster the economics of the farm and ensure those values are represented in the supply chain, ensuring an affordable end product to a wide base of consumers, etc, etc. — I think [while] we’ve been aspiring to say that all of it is possible inside of the existing system, some of us are starting to say that we’re not sure all of it is.
And this is where it’s my own inquiry, one that begs a reframe and potentially a reorientation of that vision, which is to ask, “Can we truly achieve regional food systems that reward growers, and are fair to workers and provide affordable products to a wide base of consumers, without addressing income inequality?” What excites me about this question is that it reframes the tension between the consumer and the worker and it says, “You know what? All of these people are not benefitting from the way the current system functions and we can all be allies together in a pursuit of economic justice, which is part of an underpinning need that is driving these inequities within food systems.
I think there are other examples where the food movement has arrived at false dichotomies or a need for a reframe, where those of us pulling in our lanes, pulling for the grower, worker, and eater are butting up against one another in a way that may not be productive or may not be informing the more holistic vision that we truly need [if we are to] to address the issues we’re working against. All of the work that is going on from production to education is critical. All of the programming that has developed as the food movement has asked this question of itself feels like part of the solution.
On getting to both+and: towards a holistic perspective on food system change:
What seems counterproductive is that, to my eye, there isn’t yet quite the framing that paints all of it in a "both + and" context. To provide an example, at Red Tomato we work with commodity fruit and vegetable growers who sell into the wholesale market, and then there are these wonderful people in Boston doing this work around urban agriculture and food access. In the eyes of some it might seem as though those are two totally separate pieces of work, and maybe offering conflicting messages to consumers about who to support, and where the change is.
The language we’ve been toying with here is: “Trying to get to both + and,” so that we see all of these pieces of work in the food movement as part of a larger whole and not competitive with one another. Which invites a different way of thinking about how the various pieces of work in the food movement relate to one another, and how we leverage other people’s successes in the interest of the work we’re doing and the problems we’re trying to solve.
An example for me that comes up is that we’re trying to insert the social values that Red Tomato represents inside the mainstream food system (Red Tomato does this in part through their ECO Fruit Program, which pairs certification with marketing performed by Red Tomato, as well as their Farming and Food Narrative Project). It’s definitely not the easiest project but we believe it is potentially the most impactful way to pursue change for growers and access for consumers. Which shouldn’t undercut the tremendous value and importance of folks who are working on the direct-marketing sphere, from farmers markets to CSAs and all of that. But we aren’t leveraging our successes for their benefit or finding a way to leverage their successes for our benefit. And that seems like a missed opportunity, because it seems like an either/or: either fix the system by building a new one or fix the system from the inside, as opposed to two important components of a larger movement to drive lasting social change.
The curiosity that I have in this work is asking, how might we use collaboration as a mission-based response to consolidation? Essentially, the market is consolidating around us. At the same time, there are 25 more organizations like Red Tomatoes than there were five years ago. And so those two tracks are diverging radically. We’re seeing the pain of consolidation in the market (and our growers are too) as more and more folks get into this market to try and seize consumer demand. But there’s also fewer and fewer purchasing decision makers throughout the value-chain, which means more competition for growers.
How might food hubs collaborate to be more resilient in face of market consolidation? It’s not a new question for us, but it’s almost always been in the realm of “how can I buy from you or how can you buy from me?” or “How can we put boxes together on a truck to make the bill more affordable?” Fairly straightforward, pragmatic versions of collaboration, which because we’re all relatively small organizations with resource constraints, makes collaboration more expensive.
So the question that has become more interesting to me as urgency from growers ramps up is how do we approach collaboration in a much less proprietary way so that we aren’t going into those conversations leading with: “How can collaboration make my organization stronger?”, and instead asking, “How can collaboration make my growers more successful?” And does that mean the shapes of orgs need to change? Do we need to be merging or consolidating some shared services in search of a different model for collaboration that adds benefit rather than cost? That’s the place I’m curious about where we might make a new push.
We do have experience where we buy from other food hubs or values-based distributors, and the opportunities are in the minutiae. They’re not in these sorts of broad-arcs of macro-analysis that we write into our year-end grant reports. It’s really: “I need more cauliflower this week. Who has more cauliflower right now?” Which is immediately a capacity question because when you’re trying to solve a short-term problem, you immediately have 25 other short-term problems. So I’ve also been curious about whether the investment comes from within existing organizations, or whether investment in the "in-between" could actually help address those capacity issues, to find those micro-opportunities that might inform what kinds of collaboration would most benefit the growers and then the organizations that work with them.
On Red Tomato’s work to bring the story of fair labor practices through the value chain to consumers:
We have always been engaged with our growers about labor and labor practices on their farm. Many of the growers that we work with use the H2A Guest Worker Visa program, which is the guest worker visa program specific to agriculture. We see incredible amounts of integrity with our growers definitely going the extra mile to be good employers, to the extent that we see three generations of workers working with three generations of growers on the same farm, incredible long-standing relationships with these families, mostly from Jamaica up here in the Northeast. And we wanted to tell that story and find ways to add a verification of that relationship inside of our certification program. For the past several years we’ve been engaged in a pilot program with an organization called the Equitable Food Initiative, which does fair labor certification mostly on very large farms in California, Canada and Mexico. So we’re trying to figure out if those standards could work here on the smaller farms in our network.
And so we’re using our supply chain foundation to add layers of programming, to insert those values into the supply chain. The idea of the ECO fruit certification program (an ecology-based certification program for fruit developed in part by Red Tomato) is to give the grower the tools they need to grow sustainably, the marketing and branding then gives them an economic advantage in the marketplace (which is an area where we’ve been losing ground, which gets to where it’s not working), and because we have this foundation in the marketplace and on the farms we can start to overlay fair labor and food safety.
Laura shares that even many local producers sell into the wholesale produce market, where the added-value of "local" gets lost in the supply chain:
Generally speaking, even local produce flows through the commodity system. One of the things that blew my mind the most when I started working at Red Tomato 11 years ago was talking to people and realizing that the growers we work with sell to Red Tomato, they sell to distributors, and they also sell to terminal markets where grocery stores and distributors are simply just buying carrots, potatoes, apples, etc., in bulk quantities, and that is often the point where the point of differentiation, the farm ID, breaks down.
But it doesn’t mean there isn’t a substantial amount of local produce flowing through those terminal markets in season. The very act of maintaining the farm name on commodity products as they move through the mainstream marketplace can be the bottleneck where that breaks down, never mind programming and certification, and all of those other pretty sophisticated efforts that people are undergoing. Literally just keeping the farm name on your product from Point A to your kitchen is a challenging proposition.
A core pain point for ecologically-minded apple producers in the Northeast is increasing organic production from growers in the Pacific Northwest, where apples can be grown organically for a fraction of the cost because of favourable weather patterns and significantly reduced pest pressure compared to the Northeast climate. This is combined with market consolidation of buyers throughout the Northeast: there are now less people making purchasing decisions in the supply chain at the same time that retailers are reducing the number of products to focus on those which are most profitable for the individual store:
So you have fewer buyers, fewer SKUs (stock keeping units), and vast production increases on the West Coast. All of those factors have apple producers under extreme pressure to make smart choices, grow more efficiently, and needing to brand and market their products like never before so that the story is associated with the brand. These are all of the factors that might go into how purchasing an apple for your kid’s lunch box might affect the regional food system.
When asked whether or not she sees increasing demand for premium cider as an issue of food access, where apples are going into an alcoholic beverage and not food, Laura posed this as an example of a ‘both + and’ opportunity: a way to both support regional growers with additional income and maintain access to fruit as a food source in commodity markets.
Almost across the board those growers are somehow engaged in the cider market, soft or hard. Whether it’s their own brand or selling cider apples to folks like Woodchuck cider.
I think that cider production is another opportunity for a both + and perspective: if a wealthier class is drinking it and their purchases ultimately support regional growers, then let’s not be shy about that! Let’s stand on the roof and say this is a huge opportunity that is also going to enable us to continue to produce fruit and market it this way. That’s a great example of how we can use one opportunity to address another problem in the same space.
*This interview with Laura Edwards-Orr was conducted on February 8, 2019. Laura has since transitioned from her role as executive director of Red Tomato and is currently available for freelance opportunities in the food system.