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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New streetcar line drives market biz, sez vendor

Barb Cooper and her husband operate a fresh produce and specialty shop called Daisy Mae’s Market at Findlay Market and launched Cincinnati Food Tours in 2012 to introduce visitors to Findlay Market, share culinary experiences and spread her enthusiasm for Over-the-Rhine. She says some stores have reported a 30 percent increase in sales since the streetcar started traversing Cincinnati’s streets.

“The excitement around it is just amazing. Most of the people that are coming on my tours live in the suburbs and they’ve heard about the streetcar. They’ve heard about Over-the-Rhine’s revitalization, and they really need somebody to help them navigate it to see what’s really here,” Cooper said.

Findlay Market vendor claims streetcar is behind booming business – Story

 

Here is a link to other posts about Cincinnati’s Findlay Market from this blog. Here is a post on my French Quarter blog comparing the French Quarter to the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood where Findlay and the new streetcar sit.

 

Slow Food in a Trump world 

Glad to see Richard’s take on the election and on our food organizing future even if it seems bleak:

I am very much on edge that the hard-fought battles for greater transparency, greater community engagement and shaping local control over foods … could be wiped out….

…there is no longer a consensus about social, economic and political obligations to one another…we need to build mechanisms for social cohesion….

Still, leave it to Richard to find the cracks in the sidewalk for shoots to grow:

While Trump and Brexit signal a “hard-right nationalism,” they also represent “votes against large, faceless, unresponsive institutions or political blocs … a vote against large imperial elites,” McCarthy said from Slow Food’s Brooklyn, New York headquarters.

Trump’s popularity outside cities and the coastal elite, he said, also means a rejection of an “economy that treats rural economies as places that we extract resources from rather than as places where we grow wealth and community….

Other quotes:

…Food continues to be this persistent wormhole in the universe between people who are otherwise divided.

..we still have all of this baggage from the second half of the 20th century; growth-driven economy, globalization, ultra-specialization where we don’t even know or have to know where our food comes from as long as it comes in cheaply. That system is unraveling; in the unraveling, it’s no longer functioning for people.

there is a sense that I want a different kind of relationship in my community with my food…there is an instinct to reach out and there is an instinct to want to withdraw. I can’t do anything about the withdrawing although I fully understand why one would want to…(but) food is a fairly benign gateway for us to forge relationships, connections….

 

 

 

 

 

 

Listen here

No Piece of the Pie

From ACORN International organizer Wade Rathke:

The Food Chain Workers’ Alliance released an updated state of the industry report entitled “No Piece of the Pie,” and it’s not just sobering, it’s depressing, because even as employment is soaring in this critical industry, the workers are falling farther and farther behind. There is no way to separate the precariousness of the workforce from any final conclusions about food quality and safety.

The report’s executive summary speaks for itself and includes the following findings:

· Fourteen percent of the nation’s workforce is employed in the food chain, over one in seven of all workers in the U.S. The number of food chain workers grew by 13 percent from 2010 to 2016.
· The food chain pays the lowest hourly median wage to frontline workers compared to workers in all other industries. The annual median wage for food chain workers is $16,000 and the hourly median wage is $10, well below the median wages across all industries of $36,468 and $17.53.
· Thirteen percent of all food workers, nearly 2.8 million workers, relied on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (food stamps) to feed their household in 2016.
· Eight-two percent of food chain workers are in frontline positions with few opportunities at the top.
· For every dollar earned by white men working in the food chain, Latino men earn 76 cents, Black men 60 cents, Asian men 81 cents, and Native men 44 cents.1 White women earn less than half of their white male counterparts, at 47 cents to every dollar. Women of color face both a racial and a gender penalty: Black women earn 42 cents, Latina women 45 cents, Asian women 58 cents, and Native women 36 cents for every dollar earned by white men.
· Injuries are up and union protection is down.

 

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.