Companies big and small in the food economy are blazing a different path through Wall Street’s jungle of greed.
A cadre of business school economists, high-tech speculators and corporate planners have been hyping and investing billions in a food-economy model that renders many millions — family farmers, local restauranteurs, independent food processors, small grocers and food workers — passe. No need for such costly and cumbersome “units,” argue these schemers for a revolution enabled by artificial intelligence, robotics, genetic engineering and cell-cultured foodstuffs. A few conglomerates will consolidate and automate every step from planting to plate, producing and distributing the calories necessary to sustain the masses and “free” all the “small” people tied up in food production to do something more useful.
The fatal flaw of this soulless corporate concept can be exposed in one word: pandemic. As we’ve seen again and again this past year, the essential ingredient in a resilient food system is the human spirit — the very element that corporatizers are most determined to eliminate. When COVID-19 slammed into the economy last spring and shut down or shriveled food service by restaurants, delis and school cafeterias, the grit, ingenuity and community commitment of independent providers quickly kicked into gear. Moreover, the consuming public suddenly came to appreciate anew the value of neighborhood cafes, farm stands, bakeries, food trucks, dedicated grocery workers, servers, food pantries, the Community Supported Agriculture movement and thousands of other hardworking “units” that put dinner on the table for us, even at risk to themselves. While we mourn the terrible, ongoing loss of lives, businesses and jobs among America’s food providers, let’s also note the countless uplifting stories of producers and consumers coming together, not merely to exchange money for goods but also to nurture community and do a bit for the Common Good.
For instance, last spring, farmers Lisa and Ralph Turner of Maine’s Laughing Stock Farm had tons of organic produce ready for delivery to area restaurants. When the pandemic forced all of their customers to shut down — bam! — the farm couple panicked. Then, as The New York Times reported, they set up a farm stand and sent out an email, hoping that maybe 10 people a day would come purchase a few $3 bags of veggies. But from day one, friends, family, friends of friends and perfect strangers poured in and bought extra, sometimes paying $10 a bag, saying, “Keep the change” and then spreading the word, along with community and human spirit — things companies like Amazon and Walmart can’t compute.
One farm stand is not the big solution, of course, but community just might be. Turns out, the can-do, mutual-aid spirit is more productive than all financial metrics combined. Ralph Turner expresses it in age-old farmspeak: “Head down, butt up, push forward.” The people’s response gives everyone hope, and that, Lisa Turner adds, is “an antidote to fear.”
But it’s not just small farmers who can make a difference and set an example of how to be good members of the community. Companies, big and small, in the food economy are blazing a different path through Wall Street’s jungle of greed and demonstrating that money and morality can be compatible. Texas supermarket chain H-E-B, for example, has drawn an intensely loyal customer base (including me) by investing in good wages and benefits for employees, showing up in emergencies (pandemic outbreaks, hurricanes, freezes, etc.) to give essential supplies and hands-on help, and being an involved and supportive neighbor to the hundreds of unique communities it serves.
Maine Grains is “relocalizing” the business of milling grain by working with farmers around Skowhegan, Maine, who’d been abandoned by global powers like Ardent Acres and Gold Medal. Together, they’re producing nutrient-rich flours from heritage grains — and boosting the local economy in the process. With a growing national profile, Bob’s Red Mill also artfully mills its products from diverse, natural grains — and it’s 100% employee-owned.
There’s another rising business-model alternative to the selfish, profiteering ethic of Fortune 500 titans. These enterprises, called B Corporations, definitely exist to make a profit, but they are equally focused on having a positive social impact. B Corps prioritize fair wages, high-quality jobs, environmental protections and healthy communities as core elements of their missions, even making those goals legal requirements of their corporate charter. Ben & Jerry’s, Amy’s Kitchen, King Arthur Baking and New Belgium Brewery are all B Corps, and in fact, there are now some 3,800 businesses that, though not perfect, have agreed to the B Corp independent verification of their records and accountability to all stakeholders. And with this good news, I toast you with my New Belgium Fat Tire ale!