A foray into food distribution

Reposted from Kitchen Table Advisors

The (secret) journey of a head of lettuce

You’re seated at your favorite neighborhood restaurant, getting ready to dig into a crisp summer salad. You can just picture how, earlier that day, a grinning, overall-clad farmer—let’s call her Maria—picked that perfectly curly head of lettuce, placed it gently in a handwoven basket, walked over to her red pickup truck, and headed to the city to hand it over, still glistening with morning dew, to Chef John.

Well… let’s pause there for a second. The reality is that many of us who didn’t grow up on a production farm have a deeply romanticized vision of farming. That’s not to say that farming isn’t beautiful or that feeding people isn’t romantic; but it also requires extended, often monotonous labor and generates quantities of fresh produce that, as individual eaters, we cannot quite comprehend.

When Maria harvests several pallets worth of lettuce in a day—and still has to tend to the other 20 crops on her farm, repair the shed, and balance her books—she cannot possibly deliver that lettuce a few pounds at a time to thirty restaurants. And on the flip side, a chef who is scrambling to prep for the dinner service cannot afford to visit a separate farm for each ingredient on his menu.

So how does that lettuce make it to Chef John’s kitchen, and why does its journey matter?

Food distributors: master choreographers

To answer that question, I visited Veritable Vegetable, also known as VV, a San Francisco-based distributor of fresh organic produce that has been in operation since 1974. (Yes, that’s more than four decades!)

Every single day, the staff of Veritable Vegetable – some 135 people in total – put on a flawlessly choreographed performance to get that lettuce from the farm to your plate. That performance involves 65,000 feet of warehouse space in SF’s Dogpatch neighborhood, a green fleet of 30 trucks, an extensive pricing list, banana boxes stacked like Jenga, and innumerable customer calls.

It’s a performance you may never hear about: food distributors like Veritable Vegetable work behind the scenes to aggregate, transport, store, and then redistribute produce to smaller buyers, such as restaurants, food cooperatives and independent grocery stores.

But even though they are out of sight, food distributors are absolutely indispensable to the health of our food system. In the words of Veritable Vegetable’s CEO, Mary Jane Evans, “Food distributors are like the gear in the middle that makes the wheels move in the same direction.” And according to a 2015 USDA survey, along with institutions such as schools and hospitals, distributors are responsible for as much as 39% of the direct farm sales of food nationwide. [1]

Just ask Krystin Rubin, co-owner of San Francisco’s Mission Pie and a VV customer for more than ten years: “Farmers’ markets are sexy, but honestly, if I need to buy 400 pounds of peaches, I’m not going to buy them at the farmers’ market. I don’t have a big enough hand truck.” She adds, “We continue to feel like, ‘Wow! What a resource to our business this is.’ We couldn’t do what we do without them.”

Veritable Vegetable: a food hub on a mission

Given their role as intermediaries, food distributors can have a big impact on their surrounding foodshed. For instance, they can decide whether to pick up from remote locations, what the minimum quantity is that they will purchase, and what kind of certification they require. Decisions like these can impact whether or not a farmer has a profitable season through greater access to markets.

Thankfully, the produce that passes through Veritable Vegetable is in good hands. Initially operating under the tagline, “Food for people, not for profit,” Veritable Vegetable was the first organic wholesaler in the nation. At a time when the National Organic Program didn’t even exist, VV’s founders were visiting farms to understand how the produce was grown and make sure the shed wasn’t full of chemicals. This is important, because while many of us associate organic with ‘sustainable’ or ‘good for the planet’, certification is also associated with higher farm profitability. [2] VV also educated farmers about food distribution to ensure that they were preserving the quality of their produce by picking at the right time and using the right packaging, for example.

Today, the company remains values-driven: it is a certified B-corp, is women-owned, diverts 99% of its waste from landfill, has invested in a zero-emissions truck fleet, strives to pay workers a fair wage, and so much more. To ensure that it can continue to do things right, Veritable Vegetable works hard to remain independent by virtue of a diverse client base, in which no single customer accounts for more than 5% of business.

Perhaps most importantly to the Kitchen Table Advisors audience, Veritable Vegetable continues to be deeply invested in the well-being of farmers. Christine Coke of Coke Farm, a Veritable Vegetable vendor since the 1980s, describes the distributor as “very supportive of growers”. Staff works with growers on crop planning for the following year to ensure that they are growing fruit and vegetables they will be able to sell and remain economically viable. When a farmer unexpectedly finds himself with triple the volume of honeydew melons he expected to harvest, the purchasing team picks up the phone, calling everyone in their network to place the surplus. More broadly, Veritable Vegetable strives to represent all of a farmer’s product that does not go into direct marketing, such as CSAs or farmers markets.

This work is invaluable for the health of our foodshed. Christine Coke explains, “One way Veritable Vegetable (and similar businesses) really impact the food system is that they support the small growers, the niche growers and give them an opportunity to thrive by giving them access to the market. They are interested in having a thriving, diverse agricultural community – smaller and larger, specialty and mainstream.”

Food activist, vegetable lover

By this point, you must be wondering who is behind this too-good-to-be-true enterprise.

I first heard the story of Bu Nygrens—Veritable Vegetable co-owner and director of purchasing—at a Real Food Real Stories event. That evening, Bu and fellow co-owner Karen Salinger shared their journey into organic food distribution with an eager group of listeners, speaking not just about produce, but also about collaboration, passion, and transparency. It was there that I learned that Bu first started thinking about the movement of food when her family was driving through one of the tunnels that connects Manhattan to the rural areas that supply much of its food. Looking out of the window, Bu wondered, “What would happen if the tunnel collapsed? Where would we get our food?”

I was thrilled to catch up with Bu again on July 4th. This was the only day she could catch her breath, as many of her customers were lighting up their grills, instead of placing orders for pallets of watermelons. We were sitting in her office, a stack of eclectic books balancing in one corner, a couple of peaches lounging in a bowl nearby, and the intercom periodically announcing customer calls.

Bu has been with Veritable Vegetable since the beginning, and I wanted to understand what keeps her going forty years later. Perhaps it’s a love for fresh produce. Bu loves English peas, cucumbers, and ripe tomatoes; she also has a soft spot for passion fruit. “Virtually any vegetable tastes good when it’s fresh! I thought I didn’t like green beans until I started tasting them here at VV to check their crispness. It turns out, I do like green beans! I just didn’t like my mom’s green beans,” she exclaims, laughing.


Photo from left to right: Mary Jane Evans, CEO, Karen Salinger, Director of Sales, Bu Nygrens, Director of Purchasing.

In reality, Bu explains that what keeps her going is the opportunity to touch so many different aspects of society and culture through food. Food carries memories, it brings comfort. But it is also a powerful tool for achieving social justice: “Nobody ever wonders who are the bus boys, the truck drivers, the apple pickers—they’re just not part of the public discourse. We need to empower them to tell their story.”

Bu has been a lifelong food activist, working toward a more equitable food system. She urges, “We need to understand how money flows in the system—it’s not just about who grew this, but also about who owns the land it grew on, and who earns the profit.” She has a point. Remember that lettuce we’ve been talking about? According to the National Farmers Union, a farmer earns just 26 cents out of an average retail price of $1.69 for a pound of (conventional) lettuce. [3]

This lack of transparency drives Bu and her team to work extra hard on information sharing, something their customers clearly value. To quote Christine Coke once again, “[Veritable Vegetable’s] communication is just really good. They don’t play the market, they don’t try to profit at the expense of growers. They make you aware of information they have. There’s honest discourse, which we really appreciate.” Krystin from Mission Pie refers to VV as a “brain trust” that has educated her along the way.

My conversation with Bu meanders through other big topics, including the importance of democratic infrastructure, the loss of farmland to development, the role of agriculture in alleviating climate change, and the power of female decision-making. These are the kinds of issues that motivate Veritable Vegetable’s work and bring Bu to the office on Independence Day.

With such inspired and thoughtful leadership at the helm, it is only natural that we can see Veritable Vegetable’s commitment to improving our food system extend beyond its direct business. The company has inspired many others and has built long-term partnerships with like-minded organizations to serve the community. You hardly even need to ask, and the praise starts pouring in:

“We have a deep relationship with Veritable Vegetable where they leverage their people, financial and social capital to support the economic viability of the next generation of sustainable small farms. Nicole Mason, Director of Marketing and Community Engagement, sits on our board and volunteers her time and talents helping shape the strategic direction of our work. The VV team has helped the farmers we support better understand how to successfully navigate working with distributors, as well as referred us farmers who might be a good fit for our program. And they have also provided financial and in-kind support as well as leveraged their social capital to connect us to values-aligned individuals and businesses that have supported Kitchen Table Advisors.”

— Anthony Chang, Founder of Kitchen Table Advisors

“Veritable has been an extraordinary partner and inspiration for Bi-Rite for years. Our relationship goes so much deeper than just a mere transaction. From collaborating on EcoFarm presentations to better understanding how we can use B Corp Certification to better measure and improve our positive impact, VV has fueled our mission of creating community through food. Their sourcing and farm relationships were instrumental in guiding our product sourcing mission, and their impact in the greater community continues to inspire our community engagement, and furthering the positive impact we can make on our people and planet as we pursue our B Corp mandate to be a business as a force for GOOD.”

— Sam Mogannam, Founder of Bi-Rite [4]

 

Be curious, be persistent

So what can you, as a reader and as an eater, do to support the journey of the lettuce? Bu offers some wisdom, ranging from the extremely practical, to the more philosophical:

  • Keep shopping with your eyes, your nose, your hands. Look at the produce, touch it, smell it.
  • Show up politically at the local and regional level. This is where you can really make a difference and make sure people get the kind of information they need to choose the food they buy.
  • Be curious, be persistent. If you stay curious, that means you are interested in the world, in people, in nature. If you are persistent, you won’t give up in the face of disappointment, which is inevitable when there is so much work to be done.

In the meantime, Veritable “still has so much to do,” according to Bu. She lists education, systems improvements, the adoption of ever-safer practices, new developments in green tech, and support for under served communities.

But the area of need she underscores most is succession planning—not just for Veritable Vegetable, but also for other organizations in the food and agriculture space, as well as for farmers. The food movement relies on a handful of leaders who are “great”, but Bu wonders what will happen once they step down. Similarly, many older farmers are looking to retire and—with their children now living in the city—looking for ways to transition their operations. USDA expects 10% of farmland to change hands by 2019. [5] We need solutions to support this transfer in a way that prevents further loss of farmland to development.

Whether we are talking about young farmers, food activists, or warehouse operators, we have to develop ownership paths for people that prepare them to take the lead. Only in this way can we ensure that fresh, ethically-grown lettuce will continue to reach our plates. Luckily, this is also top-of-mind for KTA, so I’m sure there are exciting opportunities for collaboration ahead.


[1] USDA, “Direct Farm Sales of Food: Results from the 2015 Local Food Marketing Practices Survey,” Dec. 2016, available from usda.gov.
[2] http://www.pnas.org/content/112/24/7611.abstract
[3] National Farmers Union, “The Farmer’s Share,” available from nfu.org.
[4] This testimonial was kindly made available by Real Food, Real Stories. Learn more about them 
here.
[5] AgWeb, “Did You Know? 10% of Farmland Will Change Hands by 2019”, Aug. 29, 2016.