We’ve moved!

4 Oct

You can find us now at www.zocalofood.com. We look forward to seeing you there!

– The Zocalo Team

Join Zocalo’s Farm Connection Efforts!

30 Aug

Know farmers? We want to hear from you! We know you like good food, but it’s about more than taste: You want to know where your food comes from and how it’s produced, while continuing to have affordable, convenient access to it. We’re Zocalo and that’s what we’re working on.

Zocalo aims to connect farmers and consumers, making fresh food more accessible by making the sustainable food marketplace more efficient. How will we do this? Our first step is to get feedback from farmers. That’s where you come in.

We are seeking input from farmers across the country and we need your help to get a wide range of responses. If you know farmers from your CSA or farmers’ market, have them fill out the Zocalo Farm Survey. If you have friends who farm, send them the link. If you live in a farming community, pay your neighbors a visit. In return for your efforts, you’ll receive a free membership to Zocalo once we’re up and running.

It’s simple:

1. Send us an email at zocalofood@gmail.com to sign up.
2. We’ll send you a personalized link to the survey to make sure you get credit for the responses (we can also send paper copies, if necessary).
3. Make sure we get at least THREE completed farm surveys from you, or introduce us to three farms that we don’t know yet.

The more farmers we hear from, the better Zocalo will be for everyone. Thank you for being part of this. We look forward to your participation!

The Zocalo Team

Vote for Zocalo at SXSW Interactive!

23 Aug

South By Southwest Interactive is arguably the best place to see and be seen in the tech world. It’s a place where great ideas, creative people, and adventurous entrepreneurs converge for a few days of panels, talks, and discussions. Last year, we were involved in “E-Food Revolution: Interactive Tools to Feed the World”, which brought nearly 100 people together to consider how technology could facilitate a healthier food system. The sustainable food community had a strong showing at last year’s festival, but we are striving for even broader representation in 2011.

This year, Zocalo has submitted a proposal that addresses how the digital world can help to make physical world products (especially food and other essential goods) that are better for people and the environment. Browse the proposals and place a vote!

1. Go to the Panel Picker.
2. Sign in or create a username.
3. Browse the proposals or head right to Zocalo’s idea.
4. Give it a thumbs up, pretty please!
5. The more comments and questions, the better. We’d love to hear from you.

As always, thanks for your support.


What the Farm Gives: A Morning at the Wholesale Farmers’ Market

28 Jul

By 6:30 yesterday morning, I was chatting with Jack Hoeffner, one of the farmers who sells at the Wholesale Farmers’ Market at Hunt’s Point in the Bronx. New York City’s Greenmarket had organized a two-hour buyers’ tour to introduce farmers and customers, and to attract attention to the market, which came under Greenmarket’s purview just last year. The drive up from Brooklyn, a mecca of sorts for good foodies in this city, was seamless at that hour, but my first smile of the day was when one of the entrance guards explained that, you know, he didn’t see too many ladies up here. When you’re about to spend a few hours with some old school vegetable growers, you may as well start off old school.

This market is a place where farmers can sell directly to wholesale buyers like restaurants, corner grocery stores, and small-scale food processors. Today there were nine sellers, their white trucks scattered across the parking lot, with bags of corn and onions, and boxes of potatoes, peppers, and cucumbers stacked on the concrete. The farmers are here because selling at this market allows them to sell in bulk but at an agreeable price and without much distribution responsibility.

Hoeffner, who farms in Montgomery, New York, and whose family has been in the business for five generations, attributes the challenges of the small farmer to reckless markets. In a traditional wholesale market, he might make an agreement to sell a box of cabbage for $10, but by the end of the day the market clearing price is $8 per box, and he is forced to give up those $2 in order to keep buyers coming back to the market. That price unpredictability would be okay if he benefited from the up-side as often as he suffered from the down-side, but the reality is that if he makes an agreement to sell at $10 and the price goes up to $12 over the course of the day, he is stuck with his original deal. Hoeffner sells at the Wholesale Farmers’ Market because here, at least, the spot market for his products exists and he takes what he can get, without the risk of his buyers renegotiating a price.

The Greenmarket gives these farmers, many of whom are beyond middle age, access to marketing and sales opportunities that they would otherwise lack. These are not guys who are going to serve the unique needs of dozens of different buyers or contract their production with big companies, but they do want to sell in a fair and efficient way to customers that value their products. The market succeeds at pulling farmers and buyers together, but as Shayna Cohen, who organized the event, pointed out, growing the market is “a chicken and egg thing.” You don’t get farmers to come to the market unless there are buyers, and buyers won’t be there unless the farmers are.

Talking with Hoeffner exposes how much dissonance there is between farmers’ ability to sell fresh, whole foods and apparent demand for it. Restaurant buyers may claim to want seasonal, local produce on their menus, but the reality is that buying from nearby farmers a few months of the year can jeopardize relationships with national distributors that deliver peaches and tomatoes all year round. “When you farm, you sell what the farm gives up,” Hoeffner says. This mentality of taking what the land, and hence the market, offers does not extend to most restaurant buyers and consumers. We have been conditioned to expect that we can get what we want, when we want it.

Back home in Brooklyn, it’s easy to think that the future of healthy, whole food and efficient markets for that food are in our immediate future, and it’s easy to forget that the farmers we rely on for that food face an uncertain future. From day to day, they don’t know who will be at the markets and how much those customers will need. From week to week, they don’t know what crop prices will do, so they guess at the most advantageous times to harvest and sell their products. From year to year, they try to compete with huge makers and movers of food.

If we are going to strengthen and promote a network of regional foodsheds, not to the absolute exclusion of broader trade but with a core value of ensuring stable farm communities in proximity to our cities, we need to rethink how we define a dependable food supply. Does dependability mean getting the same assortment of products day in and day out, or does it mean having the agility to respond to the market, the season, and the farmer to incorporate a changing array of foods into our lives and menus?

Instead of trying to control and correct for diversity in our food supply, we should embrace it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should never, ever eat pineapple in January. I’m saying that to revitalize small- and medium-sized farms in this country, we first have to shift our mental models, accept some degree of variation in our food supply, and adjust accordingly our expectations of what farmers like Hoeffner and his cohorts deliver.

What’s in a Name? The Power to Shift the Food System

28 Jun

I can’t help it. Food comes up in my conversations all the time. Whether I am at a conference for sustainable agriculture or at my neighborhood watering hole, the people I meet are paying attention to their food in a way that should perk the ears of anyone who produces, markets, distributes, sells, prepares, or buys food. These conversations should get your attention because they reflect a desire to reject a mainstay of the food industry – traditional food labeling, in favor of radical transparency.

Recently, two articles have brought to light the risks and challenges of transparency in food systems. David Karp’s article in the L.A. Times, “Fruit Varietals: Identity Crisis in the Produce Aisle”, describes how fruit varieties get mixed together for the simplicity of the supply chain and in order to prevent customer confusion. As Karp writes, for the produce industry, the value of veiling details about fresh produce is in efficient operations and subdued consumers.

The produce industry is not alone in favoring streamlined over customized operations. When I was working with a big commodity merchant last summer, there was significant concern that if textile customers knew the origin of a particular kind of cotton, they would begin to have sharpened tastes and, if they liked a specific region’s cotton one season, might demand it to the exclusion of other varieties or geographies next season. This picky customer would create chaos in global trading relationships and pricing because, if next year cotton from a different region is superior but the customer wants what he got last year, demand favors an inferior product.

Karp suggests that grocers are worried about the “educated customer” problem too. What a risk it would be if I got Pink Lady apples last month, loved them, and demanded my grocer get them again this month, even though they are expensive and out of season! I daresay, with the right information provided to them in the right format, people are smart enough to figure out that the best produce today might not be the best next week or next year. We’re already trained to think this way with some foods. Who buys pomegranates in the summer months, or corn on the cob in January? We get it. Tell us what is good now, and let us figure out what we want for ourselves. Karp rightly states that doing so would allow “good products [to] be rewarded with increased demand and higher prices, and inferior ones [to] fall by the wayside.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times article “Genetically Altered Salmon Set to Move Closer to Your Table” describes how a genetically modified fish could get approved by the FDA and show up unidentified in grocery store freezers next to, shall we say, authentic salmon. My first reaction is, “Label it!” (To clarify, in general, I think static labeling is insufficient, but here we are talking about whether or not to even distinguish “real” from “altered”).

If consumers are given enough information to determine what’s what, who cares whether the FDA decides to let this fish go to market? They will do their best to conclude whether these highly efficient protein producers are safe, but they cannot possibly be expected to anticipate the long-term effects of a genetically modified fish. If consumers have at their fingertips sufficient information to understand the choices they make with their food dollars, then collective intelligence and preference will decide whether to keep AquaBounty’s product on store shelves.

If a stable food system is one in which farmers produce what consumers want, consumers know what they’re getting, and consumers’ decisions influence farmers’ production plans, then full disclosure seems necessary. What would it take to get there? It will take more than the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” campaign, the USDA’s well-intentioned effort to connect Americans to the farm, because we need to rely on real-time data. But data takes time, and time is money. As Karp reports, farmers do not have the incentive or are too fatigued to sort fruit by varietal, much less track field-level statistics.

It’s understandable that farmers are tired – if they sell their products directly, they are not only farmers but also marketers, distributors, and, increasingly, social media strategists. Technology is evolving that can help. Products like Stickybits connect digital content with a physical product, allowing food manufacturers, marketers, and farmers to tell a more complex story than nutritional values and ingredient lists can. Similarly, Leitha Matz of FreshDirect sees online food retail as a way to provide greater depth of information than is available on a sign inside a grocery store. She sees personalized, transparent information through the website as a key factor in FreshDirect’s commitment to supporting both farmers and customers.

The question of how we identify our agricultural products comes down to whether we believe that such products are differentiated. For decades, even specialty crops have been lumped together in name, price, and path to market. However, as food sustainability and transparency efforts make headway, we’re starting to realize that nothing that the earth produces is undifferentiated. Each peach has its own flavor. Each tree has particular nutrient needs. Each acre gets its own sunlight and irrigation. Each farmer has her own practices and philosophy of farming. And each hungry person has a unique combination of flavor palette, health profile, and willingness to pay. How can we possibly consider agricultural production to be a commodity?

Traceability and transparency are essential to healthy food systems because without them, consumers have little say in the food they choose to buy, except through niche certifications like organic (which I find more and more of my peers distrust). If we could see, at the moment of our purchase decisions, the system that we empower to feed us, then our dollars could begin to align with our nutritional, environmental, social, and cultural desires. Until then, I grudgingly trust food supply chains that are not merely veiled but curtained.

Right now, the only people with the drawstring on this picture are big food retailers that can demand their suppliers give them rigorous information so that they, in turn, can provide it to customers, and farms that see the economic value and vast marketing potential of offering deeper transparency through technology. In an era when consumers increasingly want information about pesticide use, fertilizer type, irrigation level, soil pH, nutritional value, long-term economic costs, and social tradeoffs in their food, I’m putting my money on the farmers.

Some see radical transparency as a costly burden (which, if done with paper and pen, physical labels, and manual sorting, it is), but I firmly believe that with the information infrastructure that exists today radical transparency is not only possible but necessary. Yes, I think that the companies that refuse to throw the curtain back on food products are in for a big surprise, as the companies that embrace the data, consumer insight, and brand evolution that comes with full disclosure thrive. Why? Because those companies will be in constant communication with everyone they touch, from their farmers to their customers. To my way of thinking, that describes an engaged, responsive, and agile company that will survive the 21st century.

-Elizabeth McVay Greene

This piece is cross-posted on The Huffington Post.

Baltimore addresses the “food desert” challenge

25 Jun

Yesterday I spoke to Seema Iyer from the Baltimore City Department of Planning about the “Virtual Supermarket Project” (VSP), an innovative initiative that allows residents of underserved urban neighborhoods to order groceries at the local library. Through grant funding, VSP subsidizes the grocery store’s delivery costs to the library and supports a full time staff person that walks new users through the online ordering process. According to Seema, the program began in March and currently fulfills 20-30 orders per week.

This project, and other approaches we have come across in cities around the US, are new solutions to the urban access food challenge. We’ve heard that 75% of consumers in certain neighborhoods buy their groceries at a corner store because they have no access to a grocery store, never mind a farmer’s market or CSA. NYC Green Carts is another approach that gets fresh produce to underserved neighborhoods but Seema says that because Baltimore does not have a “cart culture”, food stands are not as viable a model in Baltimore as they may be in other cities.

We’ll continue to post about cool approaches to the food access challenge as we come across them. Solutions that aggregate demand to allow farmers to reach consumers more easily or enable flexible distribution so people can buy good food more conveniently are popping up everywhere. It’s an exciting time to be exploring these challenges so stayed tuned!

Hello! We’re Zocalo.

17 Jun

We’re glad you found us.  We invite you to peruse this site to find out more about who we are and what we do.  Here’s a highly abbreviated explanation.

Problem: The lack of healthy food alternatives in underserved neighborhoods is a significant problem in the US.  Limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables is connected to poor health, and there are significant barriers to large chains opening bricks-and-mortar stores in these neighborhoods.  How can we get fresh produce to the people who currently have the most limited access?

Solution: Zocalo aggregates demand at the neighborhood level to purchase in sufficient volume to keep prices affordable, and maintains a mobile distribution system through foodtrucks in order to bring food to people, instead of asking people to come to the food.

If you’re interested in chatting, brainstorming, or debating, be in touch!  We love thinking about how to solve the world’s food challenges and believe that starting with our own communities is a big step forward.