Reflections, Resiliency and Roots

Reflections, Resiliency and Roots

To All,

As a city boy, I grew up with an image of farms and food systems very different from today. When you see farms depicted as happy places, with smiling faces, beautiful landscapes, cows and pastures, fruits and vegetables, your initial perception is that farming is lucrative and relaxed. We can walk into the supermarket and purchase our favorite produce items, dairy, and proteins. We don’t tend to think about the farmers, farmworkers, eco-systems, and all of the people and resources across the supply chains involved in getting food to your plates; or the food systems that determine how foods are distributed today.

The truth is that at its core, farming is arduous work and the economics are often not as rosy as they appear to the unknowing eye. Farmers live and work with an extreme level of uncertainty from year to year as they are heavily dependent on natural resources, volatile markets, and other unpredictable elements. In my 20 plus years of experience working with farmers, I have learned first hand that they can be conservative yet agile in adapting to change. I respect that!

We can all relate to living in a world of uncertainty, given the pandemic of COVID-19. The pandemic also showed us first-hand what food insecurity looks like as supply chain and labor disruptions increased. As a result, local family farms’ viability, food equity, and resilience feel more urgent than ever. When supply chains break down globally and nationally, we need to depend on existing local supply chains to feed our communities equitably.

The landscape for mid-size family farms is increasingly challenging as market prices race to the bottom. On the other side of the fence, underserved communities, urban and rural, are struggling to make healthy fresh foods accessible and to afford them. It’s a tension that has been at the heart of our work since we began. At Red Tomato, we see our three levers for moving forward: strong marketing, more collaboration, new market channels.  

We need to increase existing markets for local growers, create new markets, redefine relationships within existing supply chains, and create new supply chains that enable accessibility and affordability of healthy, fresh foods and vegetables for all. We must explore unusual collaborations to enhance business inefficiencies that pose barriers to progress. We must work with food distributors in underserved communities to pool their purchasing power and community resources to create new supply chains that decrease food supply chain costs from farm to table. Our small to mid-size family farms need to earn fair prices to thrive and to pay farm workers the fair wages they deserve, and healthy fresh foods must be as affordable and accessible in abundance in underserved communities as they are in the conventional marketplace. 

Technology is changing the world, our systems, and the way we do business at an accelerated pace; old systems and old methods of collaboration or segregation are under scrutiny. Large, concentrated supply chains operate at massive scales with tons of food flowing from 1,000+ acre farms, delivering their fresh produce in semi-loads into huge buildings or “ton centers” where their product is consolidated, aggregated, and palletized at maximum volume to maximize their supply chain efficiencies and drive down their costs of goods. I look at our systems with a more siloed approach and feel a sense of urgency for us all to band together, to build resilient systems, be more innovative, and increase food security, a common goal for all of us, big and small.

Whew! When I think about all of this in my head it’s juggled like word art, then there is a freeze, and I hear the quote “Can’t we all just get along” – Rodney King, 1992. In a world where there seems to be a constant battle between Big and Small, Black and White, Gay and Straight, Male and Female, when will we learn that we can make this world better for everyone if we learn to co-exist? To be in the same world, same spaces, share the same or different values, but be way more effective at feeding our personal and shared goals by doing more together.  

This belief in working together guides all of our programmatic work, as we continue to create, explore, challenge, and test new market channels and opportunities for collaboration. Three of our primary projects moving into 2022 are our Food Farming and Narrative, Bypass, and Eco-certified projects.  

First, our Food Farming Narrative project aims to create and disseminate tools and training that help farmers, scientists, food and agriculture organizations, and businesses communicate and collaborate more effectively with their stakeholders – despite differences and disagreements.

Second, our “Bypass” supply chain work: the core of the idea is bypassing the conventional approach to distribution—a centralized distribution facility that supplies retail stores that supply individuals–and instead, creating something that puts the underutilized infrastructure of farms and the community to work, guided by human ingenuity, collaboration, technology, and social capital. Key objectives for the effort are: 

  • First, provide a high-quality product to people at a cost that is seen to be affordable and of good value. 
  • Second, provide producers with a reliable market and a fair price for their goods. 
  • Third, identify and explore collaboration with existing initiatives/supply chains within the community that are trying to address the same issue. 
  • Finally, ensure the model is scalable. 

Third, our Eco plan where our primary goal is to build a market position for Eastern-US, Local and Eco-grown–and- certified crops that are recognized and well-understood by ‘thought leaders,’ produce category managers, and decision-makers; and that leads to increased sales and new market opportunities for Eco growers in both wholesale and direct supply chains.

Through our programmatic work, we see unusual or new opportunities for collaboration. We can see how building partnerships can lead us closer to the change we want to see in food systems and the world. I see us all working tirelessly to change various parts of the food systems that are no longer working. We are so passionate that we jump in and make it happen, figure out profitability, or streamline operations later; sometimes, this is precisely what it takes! Now let’s make it viable and sustainable for the long term. Let’s explore how we can unite to make food systems more efficient, equitable and combat hunger and food insecurity. 

At Red Tomato, we are fortunate to be a social change organization with a business enterprise that allows us to experience, test, and learn from our growers’ market challenges in real-time. This knowledge is the strength that enables us to continuously review our plans, test, and amend/adapt our strategy in alignment with our mission. Our trade work also provides essential financial support for our entire organization. That has been especially critical this year and as we look ahead. As interest and support for regional food systems work grows, and as more communities embark on the work needed, government and philanthropic financial support is spread across many more projects and organizations. We are working harder than ever to secure the grants we need to support our mission.

I am closing this year feeling optimistic about the future! Family farms, funders, urban/rural farms, food banks, healthcare providers, and community food distributors are beginning to explore and discuss how and what banding together for change looks like in food systems work. Fairness, justice, and equity, all seem to be making movements in the right direction, but we all know change takes time, and all moves at the speed of trust!

At Red Tomato, as we look out on the horizon, we continue to be forever grateful for your support, enabling us to continue cultivating our mission into the future! We are making investments to enhance our efforts and strategies in marketing, sales, and food accessibility. Red Tomato has always been a small, ambitious, passionate staff. Year after year, I have deep gratitude and appreciation for the impact we can make in the world as a small non-profit organization.  

Next year is our 25th birthday! As we reflect on lessons learned from the past and plan for the future, our mission and core purpose remain the same.

Like farming, food systems work is hard work, and your continued support makes our work possible!

Angel Mendez, Executive Director