Imagine this: It's early morning on a summer day in the Arkansas Valley. A family farmer, already sweating and tired from hours of hard work, loads his truck with the day's deliveries. One hundred miles later, he arrives at his first drop in Colorado Springs. A shiny new delivery truck blocks the alley at the rear of the locally owned restaurant.
The farmer, with evening chores waiting, hurries to make his deliveries. But he's told to wait until the truck finishes unloading. Surprised and confused, the farmer sees his own produce coming off the truck — the same produce he delivered to a grocery store earlier that week. The restaurant buyer happily picks through the half-priced produce. Excited to greatly reduce his food cost, he rejects the farmer's order outright.
Unfortunately, the same truck appears at other stops throughout the day. Finally, back home after dark and finished with chores, the farmer sorts through his mail. Among the bills, there's an envelope from a retail grocery store, the same customer that gave his produce to the competitor he saw throughout the day. In the envelope is a bill demanding payment for what the retail margin would have been had his produce sold.
This scenario shows what could happen if the retail-to-restaurant model used by FoodMaven reaches its lofty goals. The concept of grocery stores dumping excess inventories on the restaurant and institutional food sector is so damaging, and yet so brilliant, for the modern food industry. Big retailers like the appearance of abundance, with their overflowing colorful displays. Most of the big food retailers sell very cheap, high-margin, industrially produced food. They calculate waste into their margins and into what they are willing to pay their suppliers. In many cases, the farmer is a vendor who helps finance the retailer, taking payment only if the product sells, likely with considerable delay.
The retail-to-restaurant model works like Walmart's relationship to the dollar stores, except better. When grocery stores dump their waste into the food service sector, it doesn't compete with new sales. None of these players have any interest in increasing what the farmer gets for what he produces; they are all in the business of driving prices to unrealistic lows.
Also, it's a win-win for big grocery retailers if their waste can be used to destroy the local/regional farm-to-table food movement, which they see as a threat, since it exists outside of their control and reduces their monopoly power.
Big Food's monopoly has eliminated the critical supply-and-demand relationship between food producers and consumers. Farmers know that over-production, especially of a perishable product, kills the price. A cabbage farmer from New York State once said, "If I have any cabbage in excess of my demand, I'm better off plowing it under, lest I destroy the price for all my cabbage. At least I'm feeding my soil."
Multinational agribusiness firms have monopolized the marketplace. They write farming, food and trade policy. They leverage farmer against farmer, region against region, and country against country to drive commodity prices as low as possible. As a result, imported food — including rotten beef from Brazil and chicken from China — has far easier access to the lucrative U.S. markets than our own family farmers.
Since the 1996 farm bill, corporate-controlled farm policy has promoted a heavily industrialized, "get bigger or get out," strip-mining approach to farming that incentivizes farmers to plant from "fence row to fence row." This over-production provides cheap commodities to middlemen processors, distributors and retailers who have posted shamefully high profits year after year, at the direct expense of farmers, ranchers and consumers. This failed policy creates massive food waste, while contributing to farmer bankruptcies, loss of rural communities, historic soil loss, environmental degradation and declining human health.
A new-fangled tech start-up modeled on Uber or Airbnb doesn't address the real problem of food waste. In fact, from the scene described above, it's easy to see how it ends up undercutting the farmers who make farm-to-table and truly good local food possible. The opportunistic mindset behind FoodMaven, of using steeply discounted food to make a buck, will only make it more difficult to re-localize, re-humanize and regenerate healthy food systems in the long run.
Mike Callicrate is the owner of Ranch Foods Direct and an outspoken community voice on food and farming. This column is a response to our March 22 cover story.