Let’s Decentralize Wholesale, Not Just Direct Food Sales | Civil Eats

Let’s Decentralize Wholesale, Not Just Direct Food Sales

Cities, now the home to half of the world’s growing population, are poised to redefine how we produce and supply our food. Food is now a social movement, with a particularly urban flavor. Living in southern Vermont for the past year after living in New York City for nearly a decade, I learned that in New York City it is easier to purchase a diet of regionally produced foods than in the food producing regions themselves because of the structure of our food supply chains. Cities are where people are demanding more farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture groups. Cities are where there is a local agriculture craze. But I fear that the politics of “local foods” as the antidote to the ills of “Big Ag” obscures other solutions as well as alienates people who may otherwise be for changes in the structure of agriculture.

Local food campaigns rest on the food miles argument, that it is inherently bad that American food travels on average 1500 miles from farm to plate. This argument is not universally empirically based. Fossil fuel inputs in agriculture include more than just transport miles. A study from Lincoln University in New Zealand found that because New Zealand lamb are grazed on grass grown by our cleanest and most renewable energy source – the sun – it is more ecological for the British to import lamb from New Zealand than to eat the lamb raised in southern England. Also, the economic argument of the multiplier effect (another cornerstone of local foods), that one dollar spent on farm fresh food in one’s geographic area will be exchanged multiple times within the same geographic area, can be used to validate the support of farms farther a field as well. In the Honduran valley of Comayagua where I have done research, the production of Asian vegetable exports for NYC markets provides livelihoods for 450 farmers, and over 5000 affiliated industry workers.

Since World War II the number of farms in the United States has been declining, but between 2002 and 2007 there has been a four percent increase. According to the US Census of Agriculture, these new farms are half the size of the average US farm, have younger operators, and have sales where one product accounts for no more than 50% of the farm income. These small and diversified farms run by a new generation of farmers, are precisely the farms that farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture and chef-farm partnerships have been the primary supporters of. But direct marketing arrangements are not enough to support a sustained increase in farm number, or to support small, diversified farms. The volume of food sold directly from farm to consumer is a drop in the bucket compared to the volume of food that is sold through wholesale distribution. We need to get commodity agriculture involved as well as supermarkets on board, and city government needs to think about how they can create policies to ensure access to urban markets by regional farmers.

I would not argue for a solely provincial approach to food distribution—it is either impractical or impossible—but I do argue that each bioregion should be encouraged to grow what it is best suited for and that regional farmers should have access to their regional markets. Why should NY, the second largest apple producing state in the nation, export its apples in order to import apples from Chile and New Zealand for New Yorkers to eat? Why should the US export just under 4,000 metric tons of yogurt in order to import just over the same volume? This is the current state of affairs because there are fundamental aspects of the “mainstream” food system that prohibit regional farmers from accessing their regional urban markets. The distribution of food for supermarkets has been centralizing over the last two decades. Fewer food retail companies have more market share and they control more stages of food products life cycles, from production through retail. This has favored a get big or get out mantra in American agriculture and pits US farmers against farmers with lower costs of production in other countries, and domestically pits farmers from hilly rocky regions like the Northeast against those from the flat fertile valleys of California and the Midwest.

Farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture, and the wholesale food system that I have studied that supplies New York’s Chinatown with ethnic produce, allow farms of many sizes, with fluctuating yields and diverse product inventories to participate because they feature a decentralized marketing structure. By decentralized, I mean that there are many wholesalers and retailers selling farm goods, not just a few. This is the strength of direct marketing where farmers sell their own goods, but decentralization can also be a feature of wholesale distribution as I have observed in Chinatown’s food system. If individual supermarket stores could source their own inventories, instead of being integrated into company marketing channels, then regional farmers would have a better chance of accessing these markets.

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Supermarkets in urban areas have a particular advantage in testing out this new distribution strategy. Consumer demand exists and competition is mounting. New York City is on the verge of building a wholesale farmers’ market to provide the infrastructure to connect stores with farmers right here in the city, and has released a document entitled “Food In the Public Interest” [PDF] from Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s Office which expresses interest in re-assessing the city’s food distribution. Fairway, one of New York City’s premier supermarkets, has started a “Jersey Fresh” display in the produce section to feature tomatoes, zucchini, and other vegetables from New Jersey. San Francisco completed a food system study that concluded that the top ten agricultural commodities milk, tomatoes, beef and lettuce, to name a few, consumed in that city could be supplied by its regional farms. The only problem is getting the food on the shelf.

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Valerie Imbruce is Professor and Director of Environmental Studies at Bennington College. She researches the production and distribution of ethnic fruits and vegetables for New York City markets. Read more >

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