When the threat of coronavirus hit this past spring, the leadership team at Veritable Vegetable (VV), an organic produce distributor based in San Francisco, dove into action. The company reacted quickly to reduce exposure of COVID-19 for its front-line delivery workers, staff, and vendors with new safety protocols based on recommendations from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control.
Along with organic, reusable face masks and a no-signature policy, VV outfitted its trucks with sanitation caddies for on-the-road hand-washing and microwaves to allow drivers to heat their own food on the road, both of which helped reduce their risk of exposure. This high level of agility allowed the certified B-Corp to conduct business as usual, delivering fresh food from more than 200 small- and mid-scale farmers to independent stores, co-ops, and wholesalers in six western states.
The shuttering of restaurants, businesses, and schools continues to ricochet up and down local, regional, and national supply chains. While there has been a spotlight on farm crops going to waste and efforts to keep food banks stocked, the middlemen—the country’s fresh produce distributors—have attracted little notice as they scramble to redirect the flow of food from food service to retail sales channels.
Although grocers, such as the California supermarket chain Raley’s, reported a 40 percent surge in demand for fresh fruits and vegetables in the spring as more people cooked at home, the perishable food industry has lost billions of dollars, according to the nonprofit ReFED’s COVID-19 U.S. Food System Review. Ongoing market shifts have disrupted trucking schedules, caused loading dock delays, and created labor shortages for this sector of the industry.
Months into the crisis, the situation is less volatile, although it remains unsettled as a new surge of coronavirus cases sweeps through states that have reopened restaurants and bars for the summer season—and may have to close again. “There is a lot of shuffling of resources . . . to ensure that food is getting to where the consumer is accessing it,” Mary Coppola of United Fresh Produce Association told Civil Eats.
By staying true to its roots, VV, the oldest organic fruit and vegetable business in the U.S., has continued to operate efficiently despite the challenges. Since 1974, VV has operated as a for-profit social enterprise—meaning values, including environmental responsibility and social justice—drive its founders’ decisions rather than a simple focus on the bottom line. As a regional distributor, its business model is built on a “value chain” of relationships within its trading network.
VV is owned and led by women, from the management team to forklift operators to the drivers in its green, near-zero-emissions fleet. Bu Nygrens is a 42-year company veteran who has worked primarily as a buyer to coordinate with and support VV’s growers. Nicole Mason is the director of community engagement and has more than 10 years of experience in sustainable food systems development.
Civil Eats talked with the pair about what coronavirus has revealed about short and long supply chains, the true cost of food, and VV’s unique purchasing strategy for kale, among other types of fresh produce.
You have a unique perspective on the entire supply chain. What is different about this moment in terms of the work that you do?
Nygrens: Many people have never seen how their food is grown picked, sorted, transported, and delivered to them. And so, this is a tremendous change. People are starting to look at the food system and the logistics and the labor involved. The risks that farmers take because of weather and transportation—and all the stuff that we’ve been intimately involved with for 46 years—is being revealed.
Mason: Also, the fragility of the system that people thought was so secure for so long. The giant light that’s shining on it right now is showing how fragile it really is and how inequitable it really is.
Most of our food supply depends on a long supply chain operating on efficiencies and economies of scale. What is different about VV?
Mason: Part of what happens in a long supply chain is people and entities get squeezed more the longer that chain is. You get less returns, you get less support, you get less money, and the relationships aren’t as close, right? What we’re seeing is that it isn’t sustainable, and that [it] can’t really work when it’s under extreme pressure. Whereas a shorter supply chain—one that’s more relationship-based, that has a sense of place, and where the people within it subscribe to a common good—binds a system together in a much more secure way.
Nygrens: A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and the longer a chain is, the more opportunities there are for stress and breakage. If you have a shorter chain, obviously you can repair and react quicker.
Mason: It’s a much less holistic approach to be driven by profit or a transaction than it is to think more broadly about all the people whose lives you’re affecting and the relationships that you want to uphold with integrity and the people that you want to treat fairly. I think it’s just a different framing.
How do you operate with social values as a benefit corporation and still make money?
Mason: It’s a both/and.
Nygrens: You’re touching on the root of it, which is something that I call enough-ism. How much is enough profit? Of course, we want to be profitable. We want to thrive. We want to make enough money at the end of the year that we can reinvest in our staff, our facility, our community, return better opportunities to our suppliers, our growers, and our customers.
But the driving reason for us to be in business is not to make money. And that sets us apart from many other businesses. If we’re wanting an effective distribution system, and not necessarily the cheapest or most efficient distribution system, we’re going to behave differently.
Mason: Some of the ways that plays out in our company are that we give a fair return to farmers; we don’t try to undercut their pricing or what the market is bearing. We also maintain a four-to-one ratio between our CEO and the entry-level wage at our company, and we buy the best equipment on the market. We offer Cadillac health insurance to our staff. There’s a number of ways that we demonstrate our commitment to doing things radically differently than others.
Nygrens: All of that is part of looking at the common good rather than squeezing the most profit to return to investors.
So what is your larger goal then?
Mason: It’s about creating a more sustainable food system where there’s equity and fairness throughout the system and where we as a business can increase access to fresh, organic food.
Nygrens: That’s our mission. But the idea has always been that Veritable Vegetable is one of hopefully many businesses and institutions and organizations that will affect the bigger picture by being a model. Our concentration is on agriculture, on food, on nutrition. But the bigger goal is to create sustainable, vital, and thriving local economies and local infrastructure that citizens can participate in.
What do you say to people in agricultural circles who assert that the food system is working?
Mason: How can you make that claim when within the same square mile, there are people who are food insecure and [others] who are totally food secure? I think if you look at it from a counting calories standpoint, sure, we grow enough food, but there’s a lot at play. [During the pandemic] the San Francisco Marin Food Bank went from serving 32,000 households a week to 52,000 households a week in the snap of a finger.
Nygrens: Yeah, the one in Houston went from 100,000 to 200,000 in one week. I think the food system was broken before COVID exposed the weaknesses in it. We [at Veritable Vegetable] have been talking a lot about why there is still poverty and hunger in this country when there is so much food—we’ve been working towards an equitable food system for a long time. This is nothing new.
Can you help people understand what is missing from the picture?
Nygrens: We don’t want to play the blame game, but we both feel really strongly that policy and leadership—national, regional, and local—are critical. We need to create a level playing field so that all the infrastructures support the creative, smaller businesses in this short supply chain that are responding quickly. If all of the policy and economic support go to huge, consolidated food service businesses and consolidated retail industries, there’s not a true accounting for what food really costs to produce and transport in a humane and sustainable way.
Mason: Our food workers are frontline workers. They’re critical to the health of our society and our nation. And we don’t value that as a career path. We don’t value working on a farm or driving a truck or working in a warehouse nearly as much as we value other pathways in our society.
Nygrens: Or packing fresh tomatoes in Salinas. There are hundreds of immigrant women who are completely invisible to eaters, even food activists.
How does VV operate within your network?
Mason: Distribution is a repeat business, right? So, it’s in your best interest to treat people fairly and with integrity. At Veritable Vegetable, we work with transparency and integrity in mind. We hold our values close even in our day-to-day work. That means that we maintain relationships, and when things get tight or squeezed, we can rely on those relationships to carry us through.
One thing that happens when we talk about the true cost of food is that we pay people fairly along the supply chain. People always say, ‘Well, your produce is so expensive,’ but the answer is that we don’t squeeze anyone. So, we charge a fair price for the food we sell.
Nygrens: It is the business paradigm to buy from fewer sources because when you have fewer transactions, you have less category and inventory management, you have fewer mistakes in shipping as a distributor. Our method of doing business is to try to support as many local relationships primarily as we can.
During the summer months, we might have as many as 10 or 12 people who grow kale as part of their rotation. We can’t buy our kale from only one or two people, because we want to support all these farms. We have to literally knit together a program where we buy kale from a greater pool of people and have to balance the pricing, the quality, the label, identify the farmer, explain to our customers why we have so many labels. That’s a much more expensive investment. And that’s on us. We would make much more money if we bought from two or three growers year-round and we never had to think about it.
Mason: So, when you look at our availability list, you don’t just see kale. You see Full Belly Kale, Riverdog Kale. You see what farm that item comes from. That’s really in vogue now, but that’s something that VV has done since day one. It’s not a faceless, nameless item—it comes from a place.
Nygrens: Even the most old-school institutional food service buyers are wanting, or being pressured, to make changes. And if they need a farm to send kale to a restaurant or a big restaurant chain that has hundreds of locations, they’re not going to want to manage 400 label names. I understand they’re not the size of business that’s going to be able to do what we do. But we have to figure out a way of marrying the two concepts so that there is better pricing for all farmers, fair working wages for all farmworkers, and also an ease of doing business that enables these bigger institutions to continue to function. We just have to figure out a way to improve it.
VV operates in a very male-dominated industry. How have you grown your workforce to be more diverse?
Nygrens: Veritable Vegetable has always been committed to providing opportunities for women. Our belief is that what lifts women up will lift all people up.
We’ve seen in many, many reports from the U.N. that when you provide women control of their local economies, the whole community improves. Women are concerned about sharing, about providing for those in need. And it changes the culture of any location, big or little, when women are in control of the money and the decision making. We’re committed to social justice, and it harkens back to our real commitment [to the idea] that things have to change on every level in our culture, in our society, in the world.
Mason: Back to that light shining on the food system right now—it’s shining on the centuries of inequities and disproportionate allotment of power and wealth. And I think it’s more important than ever that we lift voices and lift people and hold each other, because we have a lot of work to do.
Edited for brevity and clarity.