The final session of day 1 of the workshop, moderated by Jennifer Otten, explored two case studies of food system evolution—one from government and one from business.
Tricia Kovacs, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), explored how food systems are evolving within federal programs. She began by suggesting that to learn faster, funders should encourage and fund research that applies food systems and transdisciplinary approaches. She pointed out that focus of this session on evolution rather than innovation was appropriate because federal programs have been addressing local food system issues for a long time, and have not seen the sudden changes characteristic of innovations discussed in previous sessions. Rather, she said, programs have been added and adjusted as food systems research and practice have identified new complexities and needs for investment.
Kovacs elaborated by pointing out that seemingly simple initiatives, such as farm-to-school and direct marketing, involve multiple complexities with incremental changes. To illustrate this point, she described how she started a farm-to-school program in Washington State in 2009 and how supporting this relatively direct market required addressing such issues as procurement standards, food safety requirements, and distribution challenges.
Federal Local Foods Programs
Kovacs outlined the evolution and purpose of federal programs designed to facilitate local and regional food systems. The Farmers Market Promotion Program was established in the 2008 Farm Bill to support the sale of locally and regionally produced agricultural products in direct-to-consumer markets. The next Farm Bill added the Local Food Promotion Program (LFPP), which recognizes the role and supports the development of intermediaries in getting local agricultural products to consumers. The LFPP provides both planning and implementation grants. Kovacs pointed out that intermediary markets can help address challenges faced with direct marketing channels noted during prior sessions, such as high labor costs.
Kovacs explained that USDA Rural Development has the Value Added Producer Grant program, which was established in 2000 and has been adapted through several farm bills since then. In the 2018 Farm Bill, this program, which supports local marketing and other value-added activities for producers, was combined with the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Programs of the Agricultural Marketing Service to establish a cross-agency Local Agriculture Markets Program (LAMP). The LAMP has mandatory funding and requires collaboration across federal agencies that use different systems. Kovacs noted that the Farmers Market Promotion Program and LFPP grants are in progress for fiscal year 2019, and given changes in the 2018 Farm Bill, can now be used to fund investments in addressing such issues as food safety that the programs were previously unable to fund. She added that release of value-added producer grants has been delayed because of the need for rulemaking. As Kovacs explained, USDA hopes to streamline the grant awards for all of these programs in the future.
The LAMP also will provide Regional Food Systems Partnership Agreement grants, Kovacs continued, which will fund partnerships to plan and develop regional food systems through more comprehensive approaches, leveraging funding from outside partners. She explained that this program, currently in development, reflects the ongoing evolution of program tools as it recognizes the need for multiple sectors and partners to come together to coordinate on food systems development, reduce duplication, and improve outcomes. She noted that funded partnerships will include an entity that may be the recipient of funding and technical assistance, along with partners that bring such resources as expertise, assistance, or match funding. She added that across the LAMP programs and the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, USDA is also developing a framework to measure and assess program impacts using a systems approach.
Kovacs also mentioned that another federal program, Local Foods, Local Places, managed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),
provides for placemaking1 through health and food considerations. She reported that at least 92 communities across the United States have received strategic planning support and facilitation through this initiative.
Coordination of Federal Programs Addressing Local Foods
According to Kovacs, overall there are at least 30 USDA programs relating to the local food supply chain. She manages an interagency workgroup charged with coordinating USDA staff involved in these initiatives and enabling them to stay informed about relevant activities at other agencies. She added that the interagency workgroup also meets regularly with researchers working on food systems and field agency staff. Kovacs also manages an interagency grant workgroup focused on grantmaking and assessment of impact.
Kovacs went on to explain that, to further learn and disseminate information, USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) also has cooperative agreements with outside researchers to develop resources and tools for stakeholders outside of the federal government. Selected data sources she described include the Local Food Marketing Practices Survey, the Census of Agriculture, and the Agricultural Transportation Open Data Platform. Together, Kovacs stated, these programs, along with cross-agency collaboration and research, aim to support local and regional food systems in a way that accords with current understanding of needs and opportunities.
Thomas McQuillan, Baldor Specialty Foods, provided a private-sector example of food system evolution and described how his company was successful in achieving zero organic waste for landfill disposal companywide.
Baldor’s Journey to Reducing Food Waste
McQuillan explained that Baldor is a distributor of produce and specialty foods and also owns a fresh-cut produce operation. In 2015, Baldor executives became concerned about food being wasted through food production, and decided to use their company’s excess to address the high rates of food insecurity in the surrounding Bronx neighborhood. While initial discussion of solutions referenced 2030 or 2050 deadlines, McQuillan wanted to make changes happen faster.
In response, McQuillan said, the company launched the Imperfect Produce program, which resulted in the capture of 4,000 cases of tomatoes, which were sold to chefs or donated to people in need during the program’s first year. In 2018, 190,000 pounds of food that would otherwise have been wasted was recaptured, and the company has a goal of moving 1 million pounds of produce in 2019. McQuillan drew an analogy with wasting gas to illustrate the point that Americans waste large amounts of food without considering the impact on the environment.
McQuillan went on to describe Baldor as a food distribution company whose business consists of 75 percent produce and 25 percent specialty foods, such as chocolate, olive oil, and caviar. He explained that the company converts 1.2 million pounds of produce per week into 588 different types of fresh cuts (e.g., carrot sticks). As part of that process, he said, parts of the produce (e.g., carrot peel, carrot tops, celery tops) remain. Aware that wasted food in the United States is worth $218 billion, impacting companies’ bottom lines, Baldor embarked on an effort to use 100 percent of its food product, and as McQuillan reported, the company delivered on its commitment of zero organics to landfill on November 10, 2016.
Food Recovery Hierarchy
McQuillan explained that Baldor was successful in meeting its commitment of saving 150,000 pounds of organics from landfill by using EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy, shown in Figure 7-1. This hierarchy lists the most to least preferred methods of reducing food waste. McQuillan argued that landfill and incineration, at the bottom of the pyramid, should be completely removed.
McQuillan next described how Baldor uses its leftover food, stressing that food is an asset to be consumed by humans or animals or used for compost—it is never waste. Some leftovers, he elaborated, such as vegetable peels, may be sold to chefs for use in recipes; other leftovers, such as produce that is not fit for sale to chefs, is donated to nonprofit organizations; and inedible scraps are given to farmers for use as animal feed or compost. He noted that all of these deliveries are made to locations within the company’s existing supplier network or delivery range.
In closing, McQuillan asserted that overall, Baldor has saved 22 million pounds of food from landfills, perpetuating the circle economy. He suggested that a culture change and regulations may be needed to restrict comingling food with waste. In addition, he observed, solutions for reducing food waste may also help reduce the toxicity of brownfields or improve soil systems, for example.
McQuillan opened the audience discussion by responding to an audience member’s question about reducing food waste, pointing out that Baldor had donated 2 million pounds of food to local people who are food insecure. In response to another audience member’s question about food safety concerns with donated food, he stated that Good Samaritan laws protect entities that donate food as long as it is stored properly and donated to a nonprofit organization that will treat the food responsibly.
Jablonski suggested that there may be trade-offs involved in reducing food waste. She gave the example of waste treatment facilities, which are a major economic driver in some communities in upstate New York. In reducing food waste, she argued, it may be important to consider how to replace the associated economic development opportunity. Jablonski also pointed out that having some biodigestible waste in overall food waste may help break the waste down faster. McQuillan said he supports the idea of
anaerobic digestion once goals of reducing waste and feeding other people have been met.
In response to a question from Jensen about scaling strategies for reducing food waste, McQuillan observed that what works for Baldor may not be the best solution for all companies. He highlighted the example of an app called “Food for All” that allows food-insecure consumers to search for and order leftover food from restaurants that is available at half price. He noted that this food is provided in the same manner as other food available from the restaurants, avoiding the stigma associated with receiving food from a food pantry or soup kitchen.
Another audience member suggested that the conversation shift away from feeding hungry people with leftover food to recognizing food and nutrition as human rights. McQuillan acknowledged that Baldor could be more purposeful with its donations and use its capacity to help distribute food to people in need in addition to donating whatever leftover food it may have. He agreed that this approach would better allow food banks to address nutrition among the population it serves.
The same audience member also commented that overproduction of food leads to low prices and increased food waste. Kovacs suggested that USDA’s programs could be helpful in supporting farmers in switching to crops that are not overproduced or are low priced. McQuillan argued that overproduction can be important in protecting against the harms of natural disasters that could destroy crops, and he added that it is difficult to determine how good a harvest will be when the crops are planted.
Jean Halloran, Consumer Reports, asked McQuillan what other food distributors think of Baldor’s food waste strategy. McQuillan responded that he thinks Baldor is ahead of the competition, but is willing to share its approach. He suggested that overall, a culture shift is needed to value more highly food that people choose not to eat. He even went as far as to suggest that there may be a role for government regulation in disallowing the comingling of food with waste. Kovacs pointed out that a model for that idea exists in Seattle, where all restaurants, homes, and businesses have a compost pickup.
Peters asked Kovacs to share an example of how a group of stakeholders in a single geographic area could leverage multiple USDA grants and resources to work together in solving a problem. Kovacs responded that the grants she had described can be used for farmers’ markets, direct-to-consumer markets, food hubs, and other distribution solutions, and businesses may be eligible grantees. There are also farmer–rancher grants, other grants for underserved groups to receive training about farming, and specialty crop block grants, for example. Kovacs suggested that a partnership could engage in regional thinking and consider the types of grants to leverage to achieve the partners’ overall goals. However, she cautioned
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