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More On PMA Foodservice…Everyone Is In Favor Of Better Flavor But Is ‘Local’ A Solution Or An Ideology?

The program highlight of this year’s PMA Foodservice Conference was the first two sessions, in which a discussion of the Foodservice 2020 Initiative with its goal to double the use of fresh produce in foodservice by 2020 neatly flowed into a second session focused on local.

The 2020 session, moderated by PMA President and CEO, Bryan Silbermann, drew on the “think tank” held the day before and included an all-star roster of panelists:

Bryan Silbermann, President & CEO,
Produce Marketing Association

Mark Borman,
Taylor Farms, Inc.

Tina Fitzgerald, Independent Purchasing Co-Op/

David Krause,
Paramount Citrus, Inc

David Parsley, Centralized Supply Chain Services, LLC/

Maurice Totty,
Foodbuy, LLC.

Tim York,
Markon Cooperative, Inc.

The gist of the discussion was that the industry must focus on flavor. Much of what was said was highly sensible, and we particularly found value in Tina Fitzgerald’s remarks. Tina is the director of produce and social accountability at Independent Purchasing Co-Op, which supplies the Subway franchisees.

What we thought important about Tina’s remarks was that she emphasized, over and over again, that the flavor and quality of produce is heavily impacted by its treatment all along the supply chain, so everyone can and — if this initiative for flavor is to be taken seriously — everyone along the supply chain must make sure they are doing all they can.

This is a salient point and far more practically useful than the typical narrative used to discuss flavor. The way the discussion usually goes is to declare that at some point in the past produce tasted good, then the industry began to breed for appearance and shelf-life, and the taste of produce suffered. This being the case, growers or seed producers or someone else needs to act to solve the problem.

Though this narrative has the very desirable impact of making those who recount it blameless for the problem and helpless in finding a solution, it really is not a reasonable recounting of the truth.

Tina’s point that tomatoes can be perfect all through the chain and then see their quality or flavor damaged in the backroom at a restaurant or, we would add, on the floor of a retail store as we’ve been discussing here and here is both true and holds everyone responsible.

The whole focus on flavor struck us as an attempt by the industry to deal with the local movement. After all, if you are a national shipper, you can’t really deliver all “Local” produce, but you can look at consumers and ask what they hope to get by buying local and try to deliver that.

Certainly one of the motivations for consumers to buy local is the notion that the produce can be picked riper and thus be more flavorful. Certainly for chefs, who after all, look to create delicious dishes… if those chefs could be persuaded that nationally shipped produce was more flavorful than other options, the zeitgeist might begin to shift to favor such product. We have campaigned for more flavorful produce for years. This column won a national award for raising the issue.

Still, we found the focus on flavor to have a straw-man quality to it. After all, who, precisely, is opposed to more flavorful produce?

Surely the reality of the matter is that in breeding, trade-offs have to be made, and although consumers value flavor, they also value appearance, shelf-life, low prices that come from high yields, availability when they want the product, etc.

Some perfect tomato, available only in, say, New Jersey, and only for a few weeks each year, may be a white-table-cloth chef’s nirvana but really doesn’t address the issues that Subway has to deal with.

The conversation, in fact, moved away from flavor because, besides an admonition that this was important and Tina’s point that the whole food chain has to conspire to make flavor happen, there really was not much to say. Everyone was in favor and sort of hoped seed producers would come up with some flavorful produce.

The truth is that beyond some fruits where flavor corresponds to brix level, it is not even clear that there is a consensus on flavor. Years ago, in the same column we referenced above as focusing on flavor we also called on Wal-Mart to develop a spec for flavor for each item. Bruce Peterson summoned us to Bentonville, where we met and discussed the issue but pretty much threw up our hands. We couldn’t do it.

What the conversation moved toward was “local,” because “local” holds within it a whole group of consumer desires, which may or may not actually be in the product. We’ve done plenty of focus groups on this subject and consumers like the idea of local because, to them, it should be less expensive, because it saves on transport costs; it should be more flavorful, because it can stay rooted longer since there is only a short transit time; it is “Crisper” and “Fresher,” and it is deemed to support open space and nearby farmers.

The most humorous line of the conference was spoken by Tim York, President of Markon. When a somewhat exasperated woman spoke up from the back explaining that she had driven to the conference specifically to get the definition of local and was wondering if the panelists would please give it to her. The quick-witted York, after confirming that the woman had driven to the conference to get this definition, urged her to “keep on driving!”

Of course, there is no legal definition. For most suppliers, the definition is whatever their customers want. Sometimes that is in-state, other times it is a set mileage. Sometimes it varies with product so, citrus, for example, might be a national issue, while zucchini might be in-county.

To help wrestle with the issue of local, the conference moved into a workshop led by Shermain Hardesty, extension economist and lecturer in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of California, Davis, and Gail Feenstra, a food systems coordinator with University of California, Davis’ Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program or “SAREP.”

The workshop was built around a study done of various types of food systems and the panel consisted of four people who had been involved with various aspects of the study:

Linda Adams, the Director, Sustainability & Nutrition
Sodexo/University Dining Services — at UC Davis

Claire Appel, Specialty Buyer, Fresh Point

Bob Corshen, Director, Local Food Systems Program, CAFF

Ben Ratto, Owner, Growers Collaborative Bay Area

The discussion was enlightening, but perhaps not in the way the participants would have preferred.

Part of the problem was geography. Although all the local things they do in California are certainly interesting, it is not clear if it is that helpful to a school foodservice director in say, Portland, Maine. It would seem desirable when discussing an issue like this before a national conference to make sure regions across the country are on the panel.

The bigger problem, though, is that with the possible exception of the Freshpoint representative who seemed more of a facilitator of her client’s wishes, everyone else on the panel was an advocate for local — and so the hard questions were never really asked.

One agitated fellow from the back of the room pleaded with the panel for an answer to the question that was obviously prerequisite to the whole thing: Why?

He asked what the panelists were looking to achieve by going local, and the panel seemed to have so drunk the Kool-aid that they were unable to offer any explanation.

In fact, the one explanation that the panel offered — that a survey had been done showing that consumers really value local — was shocking. Was that it? After all this complicated academic study of local food systems, did it all just boil down to a marketing gimmick?

Item after item was asserted as if it was somehow self-evident why one would think the way the panelists thought. Linda Adams, for example, laid out a complicated five-tier program of preferences, whereby UC Davis preferred to buy within a radius of 50 miles, then 100 miles, then 250 miles, then California, then USA — without ever pausing to explain by what criteria it had been established that it was a good idea to lay off poor Mexican field workers in Baja so we could truck produce across the continent.

Both Dr. Hardesty and Dr. Feenstra are highly intelligent and very knowledgeable people, but they seem to suffer from excessive politeness. When panelists went off on wild tangents to proclaim idiosyncratic versions of macroeconomics as if they are accepted gospel, they stood silent. For example, when one panelist started to wax poetic about the importance of not shipping money to Chile and praising the importance of keeping money cycling in a local community, one would have thought a trained economist like Dr. Hardesty would have raised her hand to speak up for the principle of comparative advantage. Yet she stood silent.

It was also a little odd to hear Dr. Hardesty who, after all, does hold a Cooperative Extension appointment in California — urging on the development of local crops elsewhere in the country for the specific purpose of usurping market share from national California shippers.

Linda Adams kept talking about how hard they were working to educate the students at UC Davis, but there was every indication that the students were being propagandized, not educated. There was not one word raised of alternative viewpoints or of conflicting values. If you look at the relevant page on the UC Davis site, you see they pronounce a set of values that are not obviously correct, may not be the most moral and are certainly subject to great debate:

To support the livelihood of growers, producers and processors of our regional community, University Dining Services will increase sourcing of locally grown and locally processed foods. Dining Services will continue to support the local community and economy by increase purchases from regional growers and producers to 30% by fall of 2010.

Let us stop and think for a minute. Why food? And only food? Bet there would be a lot of outrage if someone pronounced:

To support the livelihood of academics of our regional community, UC Davis will increase sourcing of professors from the local community. UC Davis will continue to support the local community and economy by increasing hiring from the regional community to 30% by fall of 2010.

Why would they be upset? Because whatever your criteria might be for a good professor, there is no guarantee that the regional community is the best source.

Equally with produce.

If you are looking for flavor, you want produce at peak season, but that might well mean importing from Chile.

If your Number One priority is reducing the carbon footprint, we need careful lifecycle analyses, not some crude food miles calculation.

There are other issues as well. UC Davis is a state-supported institution. We doubt that taxpaying farmers down in the Coachella Valley see any reason why they should be discriminated against in looking to sell to this state supported institution.

Obviously nobody is opposed to UC Davis sourcing locally; if the least expensive source for produce that meets all UC Davis criteria happens to be local, of course the school should buy it. But on what basis can the school either raise the meal plan cost, tuition or get more money from taxpayers so it can buy more product within 50 miles rather than less expensive product 100 miles away? This is completely unclear.

And what is the point? The UC Davis website says the point is “To support the livelihood of growers, producers and processors of our regional community.” But this is just another version of Beggar thy neighbor policies. So UC Davis will support its local community, and UC San Diego will support its local community and Cornell will support its local community and Michigan State its local community — and when we are all said and done, we will be much poorer because instead of producing things where it is efficient to do so, we will buy things where it is politically correct to do so — and that will impoverish us all.

There are real issues. In London, for example, they import a lot of produce from Africa. Nothing we heard at this workshop would indicate that anyone on the panel had the slightest hesitation about firing hundreds of thousands of impoverished Africans so that, well, so that students at Oxford can get the benefit of green beans grown “locally.”

There also wasn’t any recognition that it has been trade that has enriched us all. In 1988, the Council of Economic Advisors declared that the Smoot Hawley Tariff Act was “probably one of the most damaging pieces of legislation ever signed in the United States.” Partly this is because it hiked US tariffs dramatically, thus blocking trade, but also because more than 60 countries retaliated against the US.

The ethos of the locally grown movement, well-represented in this panel discussion, leads inevitably to less international trade, to a fragmentation of the great domestic market of the United States, to a ghetto-ization of each procuring entity. That voice from the back of the room who asked the question “Why?” had a slight foreign accent. Perhaps, like so many foreigners, he sees the many great things about this country and he doesn’t understand how native-born Americans can so quickly be prepared to toss it all away.

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