The Good Food Movement in the Face of Consolidation

The Good Food Movement in the Face of Consolidation

When we let Blood, Guts, and Truth from Red Tomato into the wild, I had no idea what would happen. In writing it, I struggled with the tone and level of detail– trying to balance facts, history and emotion was a challenge. I might say hitting send was the most nerve-wracking moment of my professional career, but let’s not tempt fate. The blog went live, the newsletter went out, and I posted to a handful of listservs with a personal appeal:

‘I’m forever inspired by the people who do the work of good food. And so, when facing a challenging moment I always lean towards bringing people in, for your wisdom, support and…sometimes plain old commiseration. Below is some news from RT, please take a look and if so inspired send plenty of all three our way.’

Product being aggregated at Plainville Farm in Hadley, MA

The result was almost instantaneous. Clicks, shares, donations (thank you!!), phone calls and hundreds of emails: “We all feel [this story] in our stomach;” “Infuriating in this day and age!” “Let’s talk about marketing some of those apples to my customers!” “I feel your pain.” And among my very favorites from Jessica Smith at This Old Farm:

“After a hard day of making Good Food available despite the great frustrations that often come our way I feel reminded to fight the good fight rather than head for the hills. Thank you for sharing the pain while reminding us that we didn’t set out on an easy paved road but rather a typical gravel country road with plenty of pot holes. Your article had/has impact and will be reprinted.”

The first wave of responses felt so darned good. To have the genuine understanding of people who understand a moment like ours and the context we play in was invaluable. It truly bolstered our rather road weary team.

 

The Challenge to Everyone Who Considers Themselves Part of ‘Good Food’

Upon further inspection, though, it was overwhelmingly clear that we struck a chord because so many in the Good Food Movement are experiencing the very same challenges and sense of urgency.

Market consolidation has real effects on producers, distributors, workers, eaters, and animals. Writes Leah Douglass in 2016: “Farmers face less competitive markets in which to sell their goods, leaving them vulnerable to any price offered by a buyer. Distributors and suppliers feel their prices squeezed as large retailers like Walmart leverage their growing power over the supply chain. Eaters are faced with an illusion of choice, wandering through supermarket aisles where dozens of seemingly competitive products might be owned by the same one or two food processors. Workers on farms and in meatpacking plants face pressure to increase production, sometimes at the expense of their safety. Animals living on factory farms are crowded into stifling barns, often receive unnecessary antibiotics, and are susceptible to disease.”

At Red Tomato, thanks to Michael’s early vision, we enjoy a certain seniority in the ‘food hub’ space. In return, we feel a deep sense of responsibility to share what we learn and to help drive the conversation forward to solutions.

In the follow-up conversations from ‘Blood and Guts’, the need to collaborate surfaced again and again.

There are just too many of us pursuing the same farmers, customers, and funders and enjoying too few successes to continue on as we are.

I, like many of you, have attended many a meeting about how smaller suppliers might strengthen one another’s operations through collaboration. And yet, little has taken hold – too much redundancy, too much added cost, too much time to figure out how to do it better. But the urgency that our movement and our growers face today requires that we try harder. Ask different questions. Think less about our home base and more about the whole. I invite you to join me in considering the questions I see front and center for Red Tomato, for the region and for our movement:

  • Could we design a new framework for collaboration across our region as a values-based response to market consolidation?
  • Could collaborations across sectors or even with our competitors achieve a more meaningful scale than we alone can generate?
  • How can we collaborate with the philanthropic community to overcome the bottlenecks holding us back?
  • What will enable us to come to the table inspired by curiosity rather than limited by ego?

Answers won’t come overnight. But asking new, more honest, questions of ourselves is the right first step – and reinventing them as we go, testing and learning. It’s the only way to lasting systemic change in these chaotic times. Whether on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, e-mail or in person we want to hear your thoughts – and join with you in conversation. We’re ready – are you?!