Grocery and farmers markets

I just finished a blog post for FMC co-written with Research and Education Director Alex Canepa about Amazon and Whole Foods. Our short answer in our rather long piece was we don’t know how this merger will affect food generally and local food specifically, but it doesn’t look promising.

Because of that post, I have spent even more time recently reading about grocery stores and food purchasing in reports from trade papers, some general books and articles, all of which are sure of only a few things:

  1. Current storefront retail sales are sluggish.
  2. Consolidation of stores or of chains doesn’t help the consumer.
  3. Online sales for food are one of the few growth patterns in food but if anyone has figured out how to use this method to actually make a profit it’s still unknown.

One of the reasons why the media is obsessed with stories about the big chains is because the story is simpler: success only means profit which means either increasing the number of stores or same-store sales and no matter where you are in the US, it’s the exact same story. There is no need to worry about seasonal interruptions, cultural uniqueness or local factors or find other measures of success.

All of this means that in this age, the farmers market story has to be powerful, exciting and positive. The days of flyers in the coffeehouses and yard signs on market days as the only way to let folks know about the market are basically done.

The stories we tell need to encapsulate what our marvelous markets of the modern era actually do:

Offer civic space to all citizens, with no purchase necessary;

Introduce people to good food produced by their neighbors;

Increase access to healthy foods for our at-risk neighbors;

Encourage wise stewardship of land;

Champion the innovators of our good food system;

Support the larger food and farming system as leaders;

Advocate for better policies at the city, state, and national level.

All of that goes back to one of my action phrases for 2017 which was laid out in this blog earlier this year:

Don’t Hide the Hard Work.

In order for the community you live in to understand how their markets do all of these things, the market organization needs to be constantly visible and engaged. The staff, board, advisors and anchor vendors need to continually let people know their role at the market, invite feedback and share what they learn with the market community.

Language that defines those things markets do has to be put into metric form and shared regularly with the larger community. That is because anecdotes and stories are not appealing to those who do not know us. They need simple and directed assertions as to why shopping directly for their food matters. They need it in 140 characters or less or in a single picture on Instagram or even told them by an influencer whose blog they follow.

Now, you may find those ideas ridiculous; I can understand that thinking as someone who gave up her smartphone a few years back (after being one of the first with a Blackberry, and then an iPhone and then an iPad), but the reality is mass communication has changed forever. And not just for young people: most studies of social media show that some channels – like Facebook – are increasingly used by older people. And not just how, but what they are looking for has changed. That is why the sector that is most sensitive to any change in people’s lives – grocery shopping – has become a free-for-all.

We need to face it head on and decide how the farmers market and larger good food system will flourish in spite of this chaos.

Each market needs to check in on all of these areas above and ask itself how is it doing on each and then act upon the findings.

This is the best chance we have to not be submerged by the mess that is retail right now. By aligning ourselves and our farmers as community leaders and our markets not simply as sales outlets, we can continue our revolution even as the storefronts around us change names and focus and even in some cases, disappear from view.

 

 

Update: check out this story about the new NEW players in food: (and yes the first is “related” through the Albrecht family to Trader Joe’s): Aldi and Lidl.

 

 

 

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6 Things Paul Ryan Doesn’t Understand About Poverty (But I Didn’t, Either) 

Karen Weese is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Salon, Dow Jones Investment Advisor, the Cincinnati Enquirer, Everyday Family, and other publications.

There are many prescriptions for combating poverty, but we can’t even get started unless we first examine our assumptions, and take the time to envision what the world feels like for families living in poverty every day.

Alternet

SNAP Update:  “Twinkies can no longer be considered bread”

      “I’m disappointed that the rules don’t go as far as what was proposed early this year,” said Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank, a nutrition advocacy group. “USDA has missed an opportunity to increase the availability of and access to healthier foods for low-income Americans.”

The earlier proposals also recommended leaving food with multiple ingredients like frozen pizza or canned soup off the staple list. The outcome is a win for the makers of such products, like General Mills Inc. and Campbell Soup Co., which feared they would lose shelf space as retailers added new items to meet the requirements.

But retailers still criticized the new guidelines as too restrictive. Stores must now stock seven varieties of staples in each food category: meat, bread, dairy, and fruits and vegetables….

…More changes to the food-stamp program may lie ahead. The new rules were published a day after the House Committee on Agriculture released a report* calling for major changes to the program, which Republicans on the committee say discourages recipients from finding better-paid work.

Source: Regulators Tweak SNAP Rules for Grocers – WSJ

*Some of the findings from the 2016 Committee on Agriculture Report “Past, Present, and Future of SNAP” are below.

    • Program participation nearly doubled (up 81 percent from FY 2007 to FY 2013) as a result of the recent recession. In an average month in FY 2007, 26.3 million people (or about 9 percent of the U.S. population) were enrolled in SNAP. That increased to 47.6 million people (or about 15 percent of the U.S. population) in FY 2013, owing to the fact that the economy was slow to recover and many families remained reliant on SNAP. Even now, with a 4.6 percent unemployment rate (compared to a 9.6 percent unemployment rate for 2010), there were still 43.4 million SNAP participants as of July 2016.
    • SNAP is now a catchall for individuals and families who receive no or lower benefits from other welfare programs, largely because the eligibility criteria in SNAP are relatively more relaxed. As a result, the net effect has been to increase SNAP enrollment. For example, in the welfare reforms of 1996, the cash welfare program Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was converted into a block grant known as TANF, which has rather rigorous work and activity requirements and includes a time limit. Another program available to those who are laid off from work is Unemployment Insurance (UI). These benefits require individuals to have a work history and to be fired through no fault of their own to be eligible for assistance. UI benefits are also time-limited, typically lasting six months. A third program, Federal disability benefits, requires individuals to prove they are unable to work. For many families who have not collected SNAP in the past, SNAP is now a default option for filling in the gaps.
    • USDA data shows that spending on SNAP remains three times what it was prior to the recession ($23.09 billion pre-recession average compared to $73.99 billion post-recession in FY 2015). However, SNAP spending is now projected to be significantly lower than it was estimated at passage of the 2014 Farm Bill.
    • For FY 2017, the maximum monthly benefit in the 48 contiguous states and DC is $194 for a one-person household, $357 for a two-person household, and $649 for a four-person household.17 In determining a household’s benefit, the net monthly income of the household is multiplied by 30 percent (because SNAP households are expected to spend 30 percent of their income on food), and the result is subtracted from the maximum benefit to determine the household’s benefit.
    • Seniors have the lowest rates of SNAP participation among eligible households of any demographic. While the low participation rate has a variety of causes, a prominent explanation is the stigma associated with SNAP and welfare in general. Many factors contribute to a lack of access to food among seniors, including a lack of a substantial income, the gap between Medicaid and the cost of living, limited income with specialized diets, and mental and physical illnesses.  The issues facing these populations must be viewed holistically, with SNAP as one piece of a larger solution to solving hunger for seniors.


According to research by the AARP Foundation—a charitable affiliate of AARP—over 17 percent of adults over the age of 40 are food-insecure. Among age cohorts over age 50, food insecurity was worse for the 50-59 age group, with over 10 percent experiencing either low or very low food security. Among the 60-69 age cohort, over 9 percent experienced similar levels of food insecurity, and over 6 percent among the 70+ population.

• The operation of the program is at the discretion of each state. For instance, in California, SNAP is a county-run program. In Texas, SNAP is administered by the state… Dr. Angela Rachidi of the American Enterprise Institute cited a specific example in New York City where SNAP, WIC, school food programs, and child and adult care programs are all administered by different agencies and the result is that each agency must determine eligibility and administer benefits separately.

K. Michael Conaway, Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture. Hearing of the House of Representatives, Committee on Agriculture. Past, Present, and Future of SNAP. February 25, 2015. Washington, D.C.  Find report here

From CNN this week:

The number of people seeking emergency food assistance increased by an average of 2% in 2016, the United States Conference of Mayors said in its annual report Wednesday.

The majority, or 63%, of those seeking assistance were families, down from 67% a year ago, the survey found. However, the proportion of people who were employed and in need of food assistance rose sharply — increasing to 51% from 42%.

 

CNN Money report

 

Bob Dylan and Contract Theory

As excited as many are about an American folk/rock singer composer winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, the economic prize is also worthy of mention here. First though, my favorite song lyrics of Mr. Dylan:

I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
No, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
Well, I wake in the morning
Fold my hands and pray for rain
I got a head full of ideas
That are drivin’ me insane
It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more

I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more
Well, he hands you a nickel
He hands you a dime
He asks you with a grin
If you’re havin’ a good time
Then he fines you every time you slam the door
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more

I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s pa no more
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s pa no more
Well, he puts his cigar
Out in your face just for kicks
His bedroom window
It is made out of bricks
The National Guard stands around his door
Ah, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s pa no more

I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more
Well, she talks to all the servants
About man and God and law
Everybody says
She’s the brains behind Pa
She’s sixty eight, but she says she’s fifty four
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more

Many of Dylan’s interpreters suggest this is a criticism of capitalism or of the military industrial complex. That actually leads us to a chat about the economic prize this year, given to Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmström for their contributions to contract theory. (Disclaimer: not only am I not an economist or a lawyer, my understanding of these theories is very casual and centered on my community organizing work. I may over or understate many of these theories and will always edit when better information comes my way. Feel free to add to my knowledge via email as needed.)

Contract theory focuses on the relationship between the parties in a contract, especially those which are asymmetrical in terms of how much information each side has access. The world contains scads of examples of information asymmetry: citizens and media, citizens and police or the military, employees-employers, consumers and technology providers etc. When one party has access to more information than the other, the fairness of the contract should be questioned. The other contract issue relevant to markets and farmers is what are called incomplete contracts. This covers the likelihood that a contract in present time cannot always cover every possible outcome and so often must be renegotiated at some time; in th, t case it is possible that renegotiation can go off the rails because of lack of trust.

In many ways, these scenarios describe much of what drove farmers and their advocates to the creation of the alternative food and farming movement.  The desire for fairness and trust for both producers and for eaters led to transparency being one our chief indicators of success and in keeping the heart of our movement in direct marketing channels which offer simple ways to create fairness. But even within those models, there can be an information asymmetry. For example, some farmers markets have created systems where information only flows from vendor to market and not the other way around. In others, vendors cling to systems that ask little of them as far as information sharing with the market. One way to gauge whether this is an unequal contract is at the time that the agreement is being changed.

Still, the very nature of the mutual dependency and face to face nature of farmers markets and their vendors can usually correct these small imbalances. Same goes for other type of direct marketing contracts, especially CSAs which began as simple contractual relationships between producers and eaters for a single season and a single farm. More recently, some CSA relationships have become imbalanced: like when a farmer offers a member a credit for a bad season, even though the contract in a CSA explicitly states that the shopper loses their investment if the crop fails. Or, when a CSA farmer begins to morph into an aggregator of goods from nearby farms and cottage industry producers without creating a updated contract with their shoppers that outlines the new rules of bringing those goods to the shopper.

However, the concern over unfair contracts really “scales up”  when systems move into intermediate (back door or bin sales) and wholesale (middle-man or pallet sales) contracts. Here, I’ll focus on intermediate sales, as wholesale sales are a whole other kettle of fish and in most cases, are beyond the capacity or interest of small family farms. (The reason for that is that few of those systems have really changed anything about their purchasing policies or their regulations for small farms, and so the costs and risk are all on the side of the farmer still.)

The hope is still that restaurant owners and wholesale buyers will build contracts with producers with the same transparency and information sharing as those in the direct marketing sector, but often that has not been the case. The key to mutually beneficial agreements on all levels of our food work relies on building contextual contracts and incentivizing them for all  involved. What are the main benefits for a producer to sell at a  lower cost to a chef? Well, two might be consecutive, consistent sales and the ease in delivery (meaning the farmer can deliver when most convenient to him or her and get quick payment), and yet rarely are these benefits described in agreements for most of our producers when they sell at these levels. What is the main benefit for the buyer? Often it is the quality of the product or the name recognition of the producer attached to the goods and yet rarely are those benefits understood and outlined in these agreements.

One way to incentivize the fairness of the contract in these situation may be to create a shared asset owned by all of the parties, such as a mutually owned cold truck or even branding. Another way to make them contextual might be to have an external party monitoring the agreement. Maybe this is where farmers market leaders can grow their influence?

And of course, markets managing transactions through card technology has led  to lopsided contracts with processors. Markets scramble to understand these complex agreements which exist over different eras of management and open markets  to many new layers of liability.  Another issue is that the energy that markets must reserve for reaching and encouraging benefit program shoppers is often wasted by the lack of good information about the client lists from local or federal government authorities. Too many markets I talk to have no idea how and where to reach these shoppers in their area and when you take in the short time that the majority of these shoppers remain on these programs at any one time (also not shared by most government entities), successful outreach becomes even more unlikely. The market vendor in this situation is also underrepresented in a fair contract, as most markets – or the processors working directly with farmers – use boilerplate agreements about card processing with their vendors.

So, one can see from just these few examples that center around direct marketing and intermediate farmers how many contract issues arise. So maybe before the alternative food system becomes another one of Maggie’s farms, let’s spend some time on increasing transparency and incentives for everyone’s benefit.

3 Reasons Why Foodborne Illness Outbreaks Are Getting Bigger And Deadlier Than Ever

  (maybe not so odd to those of us working in community agriculture)

Major outbreaks linked to contaminated meat, produce, or other food products have now become terrifyingly commonplace.

As these numbers grow, so do the scientific and industrial advances. So why have these outbreaks continued to accelerate?
Oddly enough, these answers seem to lie in the advances themselves.

        Industrial Agriculture, Top-Notch Technology, Global Commerce

Source: Read the story here

“…the pesadilla of the American dream”

“I acknowledged that farm workers were seldom given the spotlight, I saw this as an opportunity to honor the hard work of my parents, and farm workers all over the country,” Gonzalez told ATTN:. “They are the hardest working people in the world, and hardly ever are given the dignity and respect they deserve. I needed them to see, this wasn’t simply my success, this was a success of 22 years in the fields, this was all them.”

parents

These Incredible Photos Prove What the American Dream Really Looks Like – attn:.