Organic Checkoff Program Advances

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) today released a proposal intended to get more organic food onto shopping lists and dinner plates across the country by pooling money from organic farmers, handlers, and processors to promote the sector, educate consumers, and conduct research on organic production methods. Once up and running, the program could invest more than $30 million annually, according to estimates by the Organic Trade Association (OTA).

“We’re really pleased the USDA is moving forward this well vetted proposal,” said Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of the OTA. “It is an industry self-investment that makes a lot of sense now and will make a lot of sense in the new administration as well.”

The proposal appeared on the Federal Register today, and it’s a big step in a process that has already taken over two years of collaboration by multiple stakeholders. It also arrives at a critical moment for the organic industry. Though organic food is increasingly popular—sales were up 11 percent to $43.5 billion in 2015—U.S.-grown supply isn’t keeping up with demand. Despite the growing market, the complicated and costly process of becoming a certified organic grower keeps many farmers from attempting the transition. At the same time, labels like “natural” and “non-GMO” are sowing confusion with consumers about the true meaning and value of the organic designation. OTA says the proposed program is designed to address these challenges.

But not everyone in the organic industry is on board. Several branches of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, the National Family Farm Coalition, the Western Organic Dairy Producers, and nearly 60 other groups oppose the idea of the program, which they call “an additional tax” on farmers.

Similar plans—called “checkoff” programs—have long existed for commodities such as milk, beef, and eggs. Producers are required to pay into a central fund, and the money goes to education, research, and promotions—think “Got Milk?” or “Pork: The Other White Meat.”

In 2014, a new Farm Bill was signed into law. The legislation allowed organic producers to opt out of conventional commodity checkoffs and called for the creation of an organic program if there was sufficient interest. For the first time, a checkoff program could be defined by how a food is produced rather than by what it is. OTA then submitted an application in May 2015 to the USDA to get the process started.

Here’s how it would work, according to the current proposal: The program, called GRO Organic (Generic Research and Promotion Order for Organic), would be run by a 17-member board of directors, independent of the OTA. Any larger business with an organic certification—from the farmer who grows the organic cucumbers to the processor who turns them into organic pickles—would contribute, unless it already belongs to another checkoff program and chooses to stay with that group. Small businesses—those with less than $250,000 in revenue—are not required to join but can opt in. The board will be made up of a split between farmers and handlers.

“The entire value chain is inextricably linked,” Batcha said. “Acknowledging that, the program is built so that everybody participates.”

Supporters of the proposal include leaders of Organic Valley’s dairy cooperative, Stonyfield Farm, Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs, and Late July Snacks.

The board would run educational initiatives and promotional campaigns intended to boost demand by helping consumers understand the benefits of organic foods. Growing demand, in turn, should help lure more farmers into making the leap from conventional agriculture.

According to the checkoff’s supporters, farmers and processors wouldn’t be the only ones to benefit, however. Together, greater supply and more efficient farming should make organic a more affordable option, said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group.

“Over time, real prices should fall,” said Cook. “That’s a positive thing for consumers.”

At the same time, the program would conduct research into areas such as farming technology and more effective pest control techniques, making production more efficient. At least 25 percent of the GRO Organic funds would go to local and regional research. These funds would also support technical assistance, helping organic farmers improve their growing practices.

Support for the proposal, however, is far from universal.

“The concern we have is checkoffs have not done what they are designed to do,” said John Bobbe, executive director of the Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing, which opposes the proposed program.

Checkoff organizations have a long history of mismanagement and abuse, he said, pointing for example to recent allegations that the American Egg Board illegally used funds to conspire against the vegan mayonnaise company Hampton Creek. Furthermore, he worries that the needs of processors and handlers could override the interests of farmers—who have traditionally received a small portion of the profit from the $40 billion-and-growing organic market.

Batcha stresses that the proposal is designed to avoid the pitfalls that have plagued some conventional commodity checkoffs. Board members are limited to two three-year terms to prevent any one person from accumulating too much influence. In addition, members of the program would have to vote on whether to continue the checkoff every seven years, to hold the organization accountable to those it represents, Batcha said.

“Stakeholders paying in have the comfort that they get to evaluate every seven years whether it’s working,” she said.

Still, many are skeptical of any program overseen by the government. Checkoffs overseen by the USDA are not allowed to disparage other products; some wonder whether it makes sense to promote organic foods without claiming that they are healthier or safer than their less-pricey conventional alternatives.

“You can be more flexible with your messaging and even more efficient with the dollars if you’re not tied to the government,” said Harriet Behar, senior organic specialist with the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES).

And there are alternatives to going through the USDA, she noted. Pistachio growers, for example, have formed a voluntary, independent checkoff that is not subject to the same governmental restrictions.

The proposal released today will be open for public comment for 60 days. Supporters are hoping the incoming administration won’t do anything to interfere with the program.

“This is an industry that came to Washington and said, ‘We want regulation so we can grow,’” Cook said. “That kind of entrepreneurial zeal should not be discouraged.”

Once the proposal has been finalized, organic farmers and processors will get to vote on whether to make the program a reality.

“A yes vote in this referendum would begin this grand seven-year experiment, to see whether industry coordination can make a difference,” Batcha said.

Invasive Lionfish Coming to a Menu Near You

American seafood enthusiasts have spent years dining on salmon, shrimp, and the occasional mahi mahi. Now a new, rather unexpected fish is starting to creep onto menus and into seafood shelves at supermarkets: lionfish.

As a growing number of people become aware of the vast environmental havoc this small fish can wreak, a group of fish vendors, chefs, and diners are realizing that the best way to control the threat might just be to eat our way out of it.

Seafood Watch, a program that assesses and rates the sustainability of seafood options, started looking into lionfish last year after fielding inquiries from local chefs and consumers who were interested in eating the species. At first, the organization declined to provide a recommendation because there is not yet an established commercial fishery for lionfish, said Ryan Bigelow, outreach program manager for the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. But the more they heard, the more interested they became, and, in October 2015, the group released its first report on lionfish, labeling it a “best choice,” the highest available rating.

“It really is a grassroots sort of campaign that pushed it into the spotlight,” Bigelow said.

The Seafood Watch rating, in turn, sparked interest from Whole Foods, which only sells fish that has been highly rated by the organization.

Though the natural foods chain told NPR in 2011 that there wasn’t enough buyer interest to research the possibility of carrying lionfish, the company recently told Civil Eats that it will begin selling lionfish in its stores over the next six months, beginning on the West coast.

The announcement is welcomed by Justine Burt, a Palo Alto resident who had been petitioning the store to carry lionfish since she first tasted it on a trip to Belize last year. “It’s something that needs to be eaten, instead of fish coming from fisheries that are collapsing,” she said.

Until recently, creating a reliable supply chain for this hard-to-catch fish was a major challenge. But the recent moves by both Seafood Watch and Whole Foods hints that the lionfish market might now be on the cusp of entering the seafood mainstream.

“It has a white, flaky delicious meat—a lot of restaurants are very interested in that,” said Emily Stokes, lionfish program assistant at the Reef Environmental Education Foundation in Key Largo, Florida. “The problem is the supply.”

LionfishTo most Americans, the lionfish is better known as a pet than as a meal. The species, native to the South Pacific and Indian oceans, boasts dramatic stripes, flamboyant fins, and intimidating, venomous spines. They have long been a popular choice for saltwater fish tanks. No one is certain how the fish made their way into the wild, but it is believed that some were released into the ocean by aquarium owners at least 30 years ago. The hearty species took it from there.

“They are such voracious eaters, they will eat just about anything, and because of their poisonous spikes, nothing can really eat them,” said Bigelow. “Once they hit the waters around Florida, there was really no stopping them–they were clearing out reefs.”

Today, lionfish have spread throughout the coral reefs of the Caribbean, where they prey on and compete with other species, generally decimating the native ecosystem. In areas the fish has invaded, the biomass of native reef fish species has dropped by an average of 65 percent, according to one study.

Lionfish can only be removed from the ecosystem without damaging other species by spear-fishing, however. And professional spear fishermen have generally been more apt to go after familiar and reliable targets like group or snapper, rather than take chances with the fish’s venomous spines and the uncertain demand for the fish, Stokes said.

But that might be changing as chefs and restaurateurs like New York City’s Ryan Chadwick are developing demand for the prickly predator. Chadwick opened his Caribbean-themed restaurant Norman’s Cay in 2013, shortly after he first learned about the lionfish invasion. From the beginning, the invasive fish was a central item on his menu: jerk lionfish, lionfish ceviche, curried lionfish. He trained waitstaff to explain the lionfish problem to diners and made literature on the issue available.

Customers were very responsive and soon supply was unable to keep up with demand. Chadwick had been diving for his own lionfish, taking regular trips to the Bahamas and bringing back coolers stocked with 50 pounds of fish at a time. As the popularity of the species grew, he developed a network of Caribbean spear-fishermen whom he could count on to supply the fish.

Now he is in the midst of launching what he believes to be the country’s only lionfish wholesale business, Norman’s Lionfish.

“We’ve got divers calling us every day,” Chadwick said. “Now my job is to push this nationally to other chefs, other restaurants.”

He is also working on developing a trap that will lure in lionfish without accidentally catching the very native species he is trying to protect. If he can find a way to catch more of the fish without depending on labor-intensive spear-fishing, it would suddenly become much easier to scale up lionfish sales and have a bigger impact on damaged reefs.

Still, Chadwick remains realistic about the chances of solving the lionfish problem once and for all.

“I don’t think eradication is possible—it’s part of our ecosystem now,” he said. “We just have to figure out ways to deal with it.”

Fresh ideas — and foods — at food pantries

GLOUCESTER — Even after a long, brutal winter, Julie LaFontaine loves the cold.

To LaFontaine, executive director of the Open Door food pantry, cold doesn’t mean winter; it means the opportunity to help the agency’s 6,000 low-income clients get access to fresh produce, meat, and dairy products.

Open Door is among the many food pantries across the state that are adding walk-in refrigerators, freezers, and even gardens to provide healthier foods, spending thousands of dollars to remodel facilities long configured to distribute cans and boxes of processed foods. Open Door, for example, installed a walk-in cooler in March to hold hundreds of pounds of fruits and vegetables and constructed an adjacent room that will soon be fitted with sinks and stainless steel tables so workers can sort, wash, and prepare fresh fruits and vegetables as soon as they are delivered.

“We are all moving quickly past the model where it’s canned corn and peanut butter,” LaFontaine said, as she surveyed shelves of prepared green peas and 50-pound bags of carrots in the walk-in. “In connecting them to fresh fruits and vegetables, we’re connecting them to better health.”

As doctors and nutritionists urge people to eat more fresh and fewer processed foods, grocery stores have expanded produce and fresh food sections to meet consumer demand for healthier fare.

Now, many of the 650 food pantries across the state are responding to the same demand, working to improve the diets of poor families who can’t regularly afford to buy fresh meat and produce at supermarkets.

Leading the effort is the Greater Boston Food Bank, which acquires and distributes food to 500 member food pantries and hunger-relief groups. Twenty years ago, said chief executive Catherine D’Amato, the food bank “couldn’t move a carrot.” Today, fresh produce makes up 25 percent of the 51 million pounds of food it distributes annually. D’Amato hopes to get that number up to 35 percent in the next few years.

The food bank, which built a headquarters in Boston in 2009, has more than 370,000 cubic feet of cold storage — enough to fill a professional football field to a depth of more than 6 feet — for perishables including produce, meats, milk, and cheese.

The organization also offers grants to its member pantries to help them buy equipment or make renovations needed to offer more fresh food.

The grants, averaging $3,000, cover up to 50 percent of a project’s cost.

Among the nonprofits that have received a grant is the Hanson Food Pantry, which added a commercial-size refrigerator last year and a walk-in freezer in 2013.

“I want to give them quality foods that are at the peak of their flavor,” said Sharon Kennedy, director of operations at the Plymouth County nonprofit, which serves up to 300 families each month.

The food pantry at the Greater Boston Nazarene Compassionate Center in Mattapan is now shopping for a walk-in cooler. The Yarmouth Food Pantry on Cape Cod just received a $4,000 grant it will use to buy two commercial refrigerators with glass doors, much like the ones in supermarkets, so clients can see the fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. Today, less than 10 percent of the food the Yarmouth pantry distributes is fresh; the new refrigerators will expand that share significantly, said executive director Sue Martin.

“What’s clear to me is the clients love getting fresh produce,” Martin said. “It’s such a shot in the arm to be able to give out not just food, but also give out some healthy, healthy food.”

Food pantries generally serve anyone in need, but most clients have incomes between 100 and 200 percent of the federal poverty threshold, $23,850, in annual income for a four-person household.

The Gloucester pantry first began offering fresh foods and vegetables more than a decade ago, said LaFontaine, the executive director. But it lacked space for more than a small supply.

The recent renovations, part of a $1.25 million overhaul, tripled the pantry’s cold storage capacity. The goal, LaFontaine said, is for fresh produce to make up 30 percent of client orders in 2015, up from 22 percent last year.
LaFontaine said the pantry is being reconfigured to more closely resemble the experience of shopping in a supermarket.

Clients will be able to choose foods from rows of shelves and displays, a change aimed at lessening the stigma sometimes attached to visiting a food pantry. Outside, kale, eggplant, tomatoes, and herbs grow in about a dozen raised garden beds.

The changes at Open Door and other pantries are less about keeping up with the latest trends and more about rethinking how best to serve clients, LaFontaine said.

“As a population, we’ve become more aware of our food choices and their impact on our health,” she said. “Any time you can have a fresh, whole food, that’s a better choice.”

This story originally ran in The Boston Globe on July 2, 2015. 

Outdoor dining in Annisquam

Finding The Market restaurant on Cape Ann is not simple.

To get there, diners must traverse the mazelike roads of Annisquam village. And it’s easy to drive by the place once or twice—the only indication that the modest, shingled shack holds an eatery is a faded sign left over from a previous tenant, the Lobster Cove Market and Restaurant.

MarketSignStill, on just about every summer night, cars line the road in front of the eatery and customers mingle on the deck as they wait for their tables. Now heading into its sixth season, The Market has developed a loyal following of foodies drawn to the restaurant’s ever-changing menu and fresh local ingredients.

“Find the best local food you can and do as little to it as possible,” says Nico Monday, who, along with wife Amelia, owns and operates the restaurant. “That’s our philosophy.”

And the approach has been working. The Market is almost always crowded during the six months it is open. It has been featured in Food and Wine magazine, and celebrities have been known to stop in when they are in town.

Though The Market opened in 2010, Nico and Amelia’s story starts years earlier in a different restaurant in California. Nico grew up in Berkeley, just up the street from Chez Panisse, the famed restaurant owned by chef Alice Waters, who is widely considered to be one of the trailblazers of the local food movement. (Waters is also Monday’s godmother.) By the time he was 13, Nico was bussing tables at the restaurant. After high school, he traveled through France and Italy, working in as many kitchens as he could—“That was my cooking school,” he says—before returning to cook at Chez Panisse.

Amelia is a Gloucester native. While attending college in coastal Maine, she turned to cooking as a way to occupy herself during the long, snowy winters. When she graduated, she headed to culinary school in the Bay Area. She secured an internship at Chez Panisse. “Basically, I forced myself upon them,” she says. And that position eventually evolved into a job.

It was at the restaurant that Nico and Amelia met and fell for each other. They worked together for about five years, absorbing Waters’s simple, ingredient-driven approach to cooking. “That really shaped how we think about food and look at food,” Nico says.

Eventually, though, they decided it was time for something new. The couple, not yet married at the time, set their sights on Europe, lining up jobs in Spain. But at the last minute, their visas fell through and they found themselves adrift without a plan. They considered finding summer jobs on Cape Cod, but soon started thinking about a bigger endeavor, a restaurant of their own, perhaps.

Then they heard about an old empty waterfront restaurant—in the past it had been a basic breakfast joint—in Amelia’s hometown. They leased the place sight unseen, and within two weeks they had opened The Market, Nico remembers. “We said, ‘I’ll bet if we just started cooking food, people will show up.’”

That first summer, they operated with just a handful of staff, and Amelia and Nico cooked every dish that left the kitchen. They wanted to work with locally grown ingredients but didn’t yet have any relationships with area growers, so Nico’s brother set out in an old Subaru, knocking on farmers’ doors and ask- ing if they had any food they could sell him.

“When the little car was full of produce, he’d come back to us and we’d say, ‘OK, that’s what’s for dinner,’” Nico says. “We were just this little ragtag band of restaurateurs figuring things out.”

Today, the operation has a more regular system in place, but the spirit is still the same. Nico and Amelia are in regular touch with local farmers, finding out what produce is going to be ready and flavorful each week. They buy their fish from local sellers every day. Each morning, often over coffee, they write a new menu featuring the ingredients they have available that day.

In spring, dishes might include English pea and goat cheese ravioli or fish stew with local scallops, squid, and haddock. Tomato-zucchini fritters might show up mid-summer, and pork Milanese with bacon-sautéed apples might make an early autumn appearance. Many menu offerings list the farms from which ingredients were sourced.

Amelia takes particular pride in crafting a course she says many restaurants too often overlook: the salad. Her versions often include unexpected components like spiced pistachios, tuna confit, and preserved lemon. “We think about salads as much as we do the entrées,” she says.

The restaurant space itself, she says, matches the vibe of the food: unpretentious and a little rustic, but demonstrating care in execution. The seating is split between a cozy, window-ringed dining room and a wooden deck jutting out over Lobster Cove, a narrow arm of the Annisquam River. The décor includes an abundance of wood, chalkboards, and checkered tablecloths.

The Mondays make improvements to the space every year. They recently added a new bar; this year’s plans include handmade butcher-block-style tabletops, some fresh paint, and new seating on the deck.

As Nico and Amelia get ready to reopen The Market after a punishing winter, they have nothing but enthusiasm for the season ahead. Nico intends to get back into the kitchen after spending the last two summers concentrating on the launch and growth of the couple’s second restaurant, pizza-focused Short & Main in downtown Gloucester. Amelia is excited to exercise her culinary creativity.

And Alice Waters is excited about her protegées’ success. “They create absolutely beautiful food,” she says. “It’s a wonderful thing, hav- ing young, talented chefs from Chez Panisse starting restaurants that support the farmers and ranchers who take care of the land.”

“It’s like a dream restaurant to run in so many ways,” Amelia says. “It has a quintessential New England summer feel.”

For satisfied diners and happy restaurateurs alike, it seems The Market is quite the find.

This story originally appeared in the July 2015 issues of Northshore Magazine, and on the magazine’s website here

To salivate over some of The Market’s recent menus, visit the restaurant’s Tumblr

Boston to launch the nation’s first ‘all-local’ public market

BPMoutThe new public market opening this summer in Boston will never sell a banana or an avocado. In the winter and spring, when there are fewer vegetables in the fields, there will be fewer vegetables in the market’s stalls. And if local fishermen can’t catch it, it won’t be on offer.

The Boston Public Market will be home to about 40 vendors, who will sell fruits and vegetables, fish and meat, and honey—all grown, caught or produced in New England.

Most major cities either have large public markets these days or have one in works — think Detroit’s Eastern Market, San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace, or Portland, Oregon’s James Beard Public Market, scheduled to open in 2018. While these markets are all champions of local food and farmers, however, none have taken their sourcing rules quite as far.

Boston’s market will be the first permanent, year-round market in the country to require its products—not just its proprietors—to be all-local, a model that is both exciting and risky, said Elizabeth Morningstar, chief executive of the Boston Public Market Association, the nonprofit that will operate the new enterprise.

“Do I know if it’s going to succeed? I don’t,” Morningstar said. “Do I think it’s the right thing to do? One hundred percent.”

The goals behind the ambitious rules are the same as those driving the burgeoning local food movement: boost economic development, help people eat healthier, reduce carbon emissions from long-haul transportation, and encourage consumers to reconnect with the land where their food is grown.

The state of Massachusetts is paying for half of the estimated $13 million it will cost to get the market up and running. The environmental nonprofit The Conservation Fund has given the project a $3 million line of credit; private and foundation donations make up the rest of the budget.

BPMinThe building is still a work in progress. Men and women in hard hats walk the raw concrete floors where shoppers will meander come summer. Visible ducts and wires run along the ceiling and a stack of pipes obscures a wall that will be covered in a cascade of flowers. The banks of floor-to-ceiling windows that line the front of the building are covered in colorful posters that promote the coming market and prevent passers-by from peering in at the unfinished space.

As the market nears completion, however, questions remain about its pioneering local-only mandate. Will the farms of highly seasonal New England have anything to sell in winter? Will consumers find the selection too limited?

Morningstar has conquered any doubts she once had about supply. More than 300 potential vendors–the vast majority from Massachusetts–have expressed interest in setting up shop in the market, she said. Applicants must submit a rigorous business plan guaranteeing their ability to provide enough product all year. “Even the small businesses have been very diligent about their supply model,” Morningstar said.

The growers selling fruits and vegetables have all found ways to extend their offerings through the colder, less fertile months. For instance, Corner Stalk Farm grows greens in converted shipping containers all year. Red Apple Farm will supplement its fruit with cider and treats like doughnuts. Other farms plan to offer items that will store well throughout the winter like root vegetables and winter squash. The first round of vendors also includes businesses selling meat, cheese, milk, ice cream, honey, wine, smoked fish, and greenhouse-grown flowers.

Not every ingredient will come from New England–market rules allow prepared foods to use components from outside the region, though the final product must be produced locally. The market will also sell chocolate and seasoned nuts grown out of New England, but processed in neighboring Somerville. And it will have a coffee vendor and some smoothies for sale there that will contain coconut.

The question of demand is not as clearly resolved, but there is every reason for optimism.

“Local” continues to be one of the most commercially appealing words in the food business, said Rachel Greenberger, director of food entrepreneurship program Food Sol at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Though the market will not have the one-stop convenience of a traditional supermarket, Morningstar points to data that indicate most shoppers already make multiple stops to buy all of the groceries they want.

Still, consumer education will be essential if the market is to succeed, said Gregory Watson, who was commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources when the plans for the market were taking shape.

“You want to manage those customer expectations right up front, so [they] don’t come in expecting tropical fruit,” he said.

Several vendors will include educational pieces in their own stalls, Morningstar said. An active beehive will buzz behind plexiglass at the booth of the Boston Honey Company of Holliston and Taza Chocolate of Somerville will have a traditional chocolate grinding stone on display.

In the market’s kitchen, a versatile space in the corner of the facility, visitors will be able to sample produce or practice their stir-fry technique in hands-on cooking classes. Area conservation group the Trustees of Reservations will coordinate the programming.

“This is definitely a radical concept, so the education becomes all the more important,” said Mimi Hall, market programming director for the Trustees of Reservations.

Though a market is always a tourist draw, planners are shaping the Boston facility to serve residents first and foremost, Morningstar said. Most vendors will serve some prepared food options, but the only seating will be eight small tables in the center of the space. The goal is not to become a dining destination, but to stay focused on the needs of local shoppers looking for dinner ingredients, she said.

To make sure the market is an option for all residents regardless of income, all vendors are required to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, (AKA food stamps). Classes will also be priced to make them affordable to a wide range of participants, Hall said. One-third of the events will be free, she said, and another third will cost less than $20.

“We’re making sure people of all different backgrounds and all different means get connected to the land,” Hall said.

If the market succeeds, it could be an important catalyst for growth in the local food economy in New England, several people said. Having a guaranteed year-round outlet could encourage farmers to look at boosting greenhouse production, for instance, said Watson.

The market is also an important step in building needed local food infrastructure, Greenberger said. And for Morningstar, the market will help both grow and satisfy Boston’s corps of local food devotees.

“Shopping in a public market is a value statement,” she said. “People go because they like what it says about them and about the community.”

This story first ran on Civil Eats on May 21, 2015.

Learning the business of food

Veronica Janssens, co-owner of Batch Ice Cream in the South End, has been in the frozen confection business for about five years. But in between formulating flavors and churning out pints, it can be hard to find time to scrutinize financial statements or plot a course for growth.

So, Janssens said, she decided she needed a plan for “running a business in a grown-up sort of way.”

The solution she found was a food-focused business course offered by Interise, a Boston nonprofit that promotes small business and economic development. The 15-week class, part of Interise’s StreetWise MBA program, aims to support the growing number of food startups that have popped up in city neighborhoods and rural towns, spurring investment and creating jobs.

With the local food trend showing no sign of slowing, Interise teamed up with the Jamaica Plain food incubator CropCircle Kitchen and Boston Public Market, the year-round local food market that is expected to open near the Haymarket MBTA station this summer.

Liz Morningstar, chief executive of Boston Public Market, said the course is part of her organization’s mission to boost homegrown foodie businesses. But, she added, “It’s also smart business. We necessarily want a stronger pipeline of companies.”

The class, which is free, includes 15 owners from 10 companies that sell everything from herbal infusion drinks to decadent doughnuts. (The group also includes a flower grower who sells at farmers markets.) Some, like Union Square Donuts and Q’s Nuts, both based in Somerville, have already gained buzz for products such as maple bacon donuts and Mexican chocolate almonds.

Others are still planning their official launches.

All want to find ways for their businesses to grow.

On a recent Monday night, the group met at Interise’s offices to polish their elevator pitches to potential buyers, talk about targeting their ideal customers, and trade tips about promoting themselves on social media. For the first seven weeks, the curriculum focused on keeping, reading, and analyzing financial statements; the remaining eight weeks will cover marketing, sales, human resources, and strategic planning.

At the end of the course, the students will have created a three-year business plan. Already, the work they have done has changed the direction of one business.

Barbara Rietscha, owner of the flower-growing operation Stow Greenhouses in Stow, has decided that positioning her company as a farm and florist, moving away from its identity as a wholesaler, is the best plan for expanding her business. She had been considering the change for some time; assessing her financials for class convinced her to accelerate her plans.

As class proceeded this week, product samples — pouches of flavored almonds, plastic tubes of wrapped caramels, boxes of frozen ravioli — littered the tables in the classroom. Business lingo like “end user” (aka customer) and “margin” (the difference between cost and price for each item sold) shared conversational space with talk of flavor combinations and cheesemaking techniques.

These conversations are one of the key benefits of the class, said Christina Barbieri, co-owner of the Amesbury cheesemaker Wolf Meadow Farms. Though she has a business degree, Barbieri has discovered that the food industry offers very specific and unexpected challenges, such as working out the logistics of obtaining ingredients from local sources.

“It’s so different from anything you learn in a textbook,” she said. “We’ve been learning so much from other people.”

Interise is watching the dynamic among the food entrepreneurs closely, said Johnny Charles, the organization’s Boston program manager. StreetWise MBA is a national program; more than 2,000 entrepreneurs in 36 communities have participated. In the past, classes have generally included a mix of businesses specifically chosen so that the students don’t find themselves trading tips with their competition, Charles said.

The food class, therefore, is something of an experiment by focusing on a single industry, he said. It will help Interise find new approaches to serving a range of small companies.

“Are there different ways we can think of supporting different businesses in different industries?” he asked. “There’s still some learning to be done.”

The goal for many of the students is to secure a slot at Boston Public Market when it opens in a few months. The final line-up of vendors — there will be about 42 to start — has not been announced, but is likely to include some of the class participants, Morningstar said.

Regardless, she said, the public market is eager to support even those businesses that don’t end up as vendors, because they will help to expand the food scene in Boston. That ultimately benefits the public market, the companies, and their customers, she said.

For entrepreneurs like Janssens, the importance of the class is more straightforward: It encourages her to focus on the business aspects of her ice cream company.

“The class makes you step back,” Janssens said. “You have to answer the hard questions you sometimes try to ignore.”

This story originally appeared in The Boston Globe on March 12, 2015. Click here to read the full story and see photos of the students. 

Is the era of Big Food coming to an end?

Big FoodFood giant Kellogg is removing the genetically modified ingredients from its Kashi Golean cereals. Competitor ConAgra is launching a line of minimally processed frozen meals under the brand name Healthy Choice Simply. And General Mills last fall snapped up Annie’s, a popular brand of organic pastas, snacks and condiments.

As consumer demand for local, organic and fresh foods continues to grow, the enormous multinational firms that are collectively being called Big Food are in the position of having to rework, reshape and reimagine themselves. Although this changing consumer landscape has contributed to lackluster growth among some of the industry’s major players, the consensus among producers, analysts and healthy food advocates is that the major food companies – and their influence – are still going strong. For now.

“These companies make billions of dollars every year. The issue isn’t profits – these are massive – it’s growth,” says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University, and an advocate for healthy food policy.

Indeed, growth has been a challenge for many in the industry over the past year.

Net sales at Kellogg – maker of Cheez-Its, Pringles and Keebler cookies in addition to its well-known cereals – decreased by 1.4% to $14.6b in 2014, a performance CEO John Bryant called “disappointing” in the company’s fourth quarter earnings call. Declining sales of breakfast foods and snacks contributed to the downward trend. At Kraft – home of brands including Oscar Mayer, Jell-O and Velveeta – net revenues edged down 0.1% in 2014.

Consumers’ growing appetite for foods that feel healthier, fresher and less processed is one of the significant obstacles to growth. In remarks at the Consumer Analyst Group of New York conference in February, Campbell’s CEO Denise Morrison said: “we are also confronting profound shifts in consumers’ preferences and priorities with respect to food”, pointing to an “explosion of interest in fresh foods” and “a mounting distrust of so-called Big Food”.

Sales on the perimeter of the supermarket, where fresh produce, meat and dairy are generally sold, have risen about 5% over the last year, while sales of the more processed and packaged items sold in the aisles have increased only 1%, says Erin Lash, food industry analyst for investment research firm Morningstar.

“Consumers just want to overall feel like they are eating healthier,” Lash says. “That’s one of the biggest trends, especially in the US.”

Big food companies have seen some of these changes coming and attempted to prepare for them. Kellogg acquired whole-grains-focused Kashi in 2000, the same year General Mills bought organic food company Small Planet Foods, which produces Cascadian Farms vegetables and Muir Glen tomatoes.

“We have a strong portfolio of natural and organic brands, which has been growing double digits since [the Small Planet acquisition],” says General Mills spokeswoman Bridget Christenson, valuing the company’s natural and organic portfolio at $600m.

The trend shows no signs of slowing, with plenty of examples of big companies redoubling their investments in healthy food initiatives.

Nestlé USA announced last month that it will stop using artificial colors in its chocolates by the end of 2015. ConAgra has been expanding its “all-natural, gourmet-inspired” Alexia brand, adding frozen vegetables, side dishes and breads to the line. Campbell’s launched an organic soup line last month, and Morrison, in her remarks at the analyst conference, promised an investment in “packaged fresh” foods.

At the same time, while fresher, healthier foods may be grabbing more room in the lineup, there is reason to believe that the appetite for convenient packaged foods remains strong. Kraft’s fourth quarter earnings release (pdf) points to increased sales of Lunchables prepackaged lunches and “ongoing growth in bacon” as key factors driving higher revenues in its refrigerated meals category. Sales of Pringles are increasing, Kellogg’s Bryant said at the analysts conference. ConAgra’s pot pies and Chef Boyardee canned pastas are both seeing increased sales.

“People who don’t consume Chef Boyardee might comment on the processed nature of it, but when we talk to people who depend on that product, it’s something that they dramatically love,” says Thatcher Schulte, ConAgra’s director of insights and analytics.

The future, as always, is uncertain. And it’s unlikely all the companies’ efforts will share the same fate. After all, some companies have done a better job of positioning themselves than others. Lash points to Kellogg and Campbell’s as two companies that have struggled. Kraft, on the other hand, has been doing a good job refocusing its marketing efforts, and General Mills is getting some traction with its Greek yogurt offerings, she says.

Lash says that the future looks bright for those that are willing to adapt: “The companies that you see that are focused on innovation, focused on bringing to market new products – they have the opportunity to continue to realize decent growth.”

This story was originally published on TheGuardian.com on March 12, 2015.

Is China’s GMO corn ban protecting consumers or protecting markets?

For 42 years, Don Villwock has grown soybeans and corn on 4,000 acres in southwest Indiana. He has endured low prices, bad weather and trade embargoes. This year, however, he’s facing a new challenge: China.

In March, China’s authorities stopped accepting exports of corn that contained a specific, very common genetic modification intended to make the plant resistant to insects. A few months later China also began rejecting dried distillers grain – a byproduct of ethanol production – that carried the trait.

Villwock explains that, as a major market evaporated, prices tumbled, and farms across the US took a financial hit. “We’re one of them,” he says. “I got to see this movie from the front row.”

Genetically modified foods have long been controversial. Opponents argue that these crops damage the environment, contribute to corporate control of food systems, and have not been proven safe for human consumption. Supporters counter that genetically engineered crops require less pesticide use and could be a key part of confronting rising food demand worldwide.

China’s recent moves, however, raise questions about the global future of GMO crops.

Ripples from a closed market

The trait China rejected was developed by Syngenta, one of the major producers of genetically engineered seeds. Four years ago, they released it under the name Viptera; since then, it has been approved in most major markets, including the US and the generally GMO-shy European Union. China, however, has lagged on approving the trait. Earlier this year, they began cracking down on imports.

Veronica Nigh, an economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), says that, in recent years, China has bought about 40% of the dried distillers grain produced in the US. But now, with Viptera unwelcome in China, many middlemen have become unwilling to buy any corn that might contain the trait, and many farmers have been left with surplus corn. In turn, the extra supply of corn in the market has driven down prices for all corn growers.
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“When your number one customer starts rejecting [your crop], the price drops quickly,” Nigh says.

In response, the US Grains Council asked Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to pressure China to approve the trait. Some critics, however, place the blame squarely on Syngenta for pushing a new trait before it was approved by a major trading partner. The North American Export Grain Association and the National Grain and Feed Association have asked Syngenta to cease marketing Viptera and another unapproved trait. International trading company Cargill and livestock feed exporter Trans Coastal have both sued the biotech giant, claiming expected losses of $90 million and $41 million, respectively.

Syngenta did not respond to requests for comment, but has rejected responsibility on its website. David Morgan, president of Syngenta Seeds, has asserted that halting marketing of certain seeds at this point would be tantamount to giving a foreign nation control over US agricultural practices.

At the moment, biotech companies are standing by the power of GMOs. Villwock says, however, that some farmers are considering a return to conventional seed next year rather than risk growing crops that prove unsellable.

An economic power play?

AFBF’s Nigh suggests that China has economic reasons for rejecting Viptera: Chinese corn farmers are experiencing significant surpluses right now, and slowing imports could help buoy prices for these growers. However, once the fear of GMOs is incited, she says, it is not easy to reverse.

“Long-term, our concern is that it slows down the abilities of US farmers to adopt the newest and best technology available to them,” she says.

Monsanto, a major seed producer that is not currently having trouble with China, is still developing GMO traits. But Rob Fraley, the company’s chief technology officer, points out that it has also been dedicating a growing portion of its budget – currently over 50% – to “advanced breeding” programs. Whereas GMO seeds generally contain altered DNA or genetic code from other species, this new program is more like an accelerated, science-aided version of old fashioned breeding: scientists use gene mapping techniques to identify desired traits in plants, making it easier for breeders to select for these characteristics.

“They can breed faster, they can breed more precisely, they can map and tag breeding traits – but it’s not a GMO,” Fraley says.

These techniques have already produced an antioxidant-boosting broccoli that is just coming to market, Fraley says, noting that other varieties that offer enhanced nutrition, better flavor, and other desirable traits are also in development.

There are also promising alternatives to genetically modified crops, says Bill Freese, a science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety. Farming practices known as ecological agriculture – including crop rotation and the planting of cover crops – can help keep weeds at bay, making it unnecessary to plant herbicide-resistant GMO seeds. Moreover, he explains, conventional breeding programs have produced the kinds of drought-tolerant and enhanced-nutrition strains promised by genetic engineering. However, none of these new varieties have yet been able to gain traction in the market because the breeders, many of whom are publicly funded, don’t have the money or clout to compete with GMO producers, he says.

Even with the challenges they’re facing, GMOs are likely to stick around. Genetically modified crops make up nearly 90% of the corn grown in the US. And, according to a recent study by the Georg-August-University of Goettingen, GMO seed has increased yields by 22% and farmers’ profits by 68%.

Many farmers are planning to stick with their GMO seeds. When prices are low, Villwock says, it just makes sense to use the seeds with the highest yields. And, in his experience, those are genetically modified crops. “There’s no doubt the economics lean towards planting a GMO crop,” Villwock says. “We will stay planting GMOs on our farm.”

This story originally ran on TheGuardian.com on November 20, 2014.

Me eat vegetable

Cookie Monster wants your children to cut down on his namesake treats and start snacking on baby carrots and clementines instead.

Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind the children’s TV show, and the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) have partnered to create Eat Brighter, an initiative aimed at curbing childhood obesity. Sunkist, one of the country’s largest citrus brands, joins the effort in late October, launching a line of navel oranges and mandarins in Sesame Street-themed packaging.

“We are particularly excited to be a part of this initiative with PMA and Sesame Workshop because it offers our industry the opportunity to join together to, hopefully, spur greater change than any one of our companies could effect on their own,” said Kevin Fiori, vice president of sales and marketing for Sunkist.

GroverBerriesThe goal of the initiative is to compete with producers of cookies and chips by deploying the same marketing strategies these foods use. Sesame Workshop will license characters such as Big Bird, Elmo and Cookie Monster to fruit and vegetable suppliers free of charge for two years. Such deals would usually be worth millions of dollars to Sesame Workshop, according to Putnam, who is on the task force that designed the program.

“We know that telling people to eat healthier doesn’t work, but inspiring them emotively and using some of the tactics of the junk food industry … is a much more successful strategy,” said Todd Putnam, chief commercial officer of Bolthouse Farms, another produce supplier signed up to use the Sesame Street brand on its packaging.

The initiative was announced in October 2013 and the first products hit the shelves earlier this year. In the late spring, East Coast Fresh, a produce packager and distributor in Maryland, introduced pre-cut fruits and vegetables labeled with Sesame Street characters. Bolthouse Farms will be launching Eat Brighter-branded baby carrots in January 2015.

So far, about 25 companies have signed the licensing agreement to use Sesame Street branding on their products.

“We have applications coming in every day now,” said Meg Miller, spokeswoman for the Produce Marketing Association. “The program is really picking up speed.”

Converting kids from cookies to carrots

There is strong evidence that the marketing of food to children is effective, though questions remain as to whether these strategies will work as well for fruits and vegetables as they do for chips and cookies.

“The best evidence we have that it’s working is that companies spend $1.6bn every year on food marketing to children,” said Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

The science seems to back up these marketing practices. A 2009 study at Yale found that exposure to food advertising during television viewing makes children eat up to 45% more snack food compared to children who did not watch ads. Harris also points to other research that has shown that branding food makes children believe it tastes better. The use of characters in marketing has been shown to increase the appeal of fruits and vegetables and junk food alike.

However, using character-based marketing to encourage fruit and vegetable consumption may be more challenging than using similar tactics to promote sugary and salty snacks. Although studies have indicated the character branding works on both produce and less healthy snacks, that effect wasn’t as strong for the healthier foods, she said.

“Kids aren’t born liking the taste of vegetables,” she said. “I believe it would be much more difficult to market healthier food to kids.”

Putnam is confident that obstacle can be overcome, he said, pointing to research that suggests children can adapt to new foods in as few as five exposures.

Is all advertising to children bad?

For some critics, however, the question of whether the initiative will be effective is secondary to whether these tactics should be used at all.

Children already live in an advertising-saturated world, argues Josh Golin, associate director of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. They don’t need another campaign urging them to respond positively to characters and emotional pleas, especially when these techniques are more often used to sell unhealthy foods, he said.

“If we tell kids to eat based on what characters tell you to eat, it’s not a winning battle in the long run,” he said. “From the perspective of overall wellbeing, we really need to try and reverse the sway that characters have over kids.”

Brian Wilcox, a professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, draws a distinction between the sort of marketing the Eat Brighter campaign employs and advertising in which characters deliver a direct pitch. Such advertising depends on young children’s inability to distinguish promotional media from entertainment or information, he noted. Including a character’s image on fruit or vegetable packaging, however, creates a positive emotional association in pursuit of a healthy behavior.

“That is a very different process and that’s much more acceptable from my standpoint,” Wilcox said. “I am willing to use the tools of marketing when they can benefit the wellbeing of kids.”

Putnam recognizes the concerns people might have about targeting children with commercial messages. But he argues that the health problems caused by childhood obesity are worrisome enough that all available tools should be used to combat them. Using marketing to promote healthy foods is not the only answer, he said, but is an important part of tackling the issue.

“I have a solution that I know works,” Putnam said. “It’s hard for me to say no to that.”

This story originally appeared on TheGuardian.com on October 4, 2014. Click here to see story and a poll about marketing to children.

Next-gen urban farms: 10 innovative projects from around the world

Many shoppers like the idea of buying local. After all, it can mean fresher and healthier foods, stronger local economies, direct contact with food producers and in some cases — but not always — lower carbon emissions.

But most of us have only a few options for participating in the local food movement: visiting the farmers market or signing up for a community supported agriculture (CSA) subscription. As the movement continues to grow and evolve, however, social entrepreneurs are experimenting with novel ways to make local agriculture an integral part of urban life.

Here are 10 of the most intriguing projects currently underway:

GrowUp Box, London, UK

GrowUp1
Photo: GrowUp Urban Farms

Kate Hofman and Tom Webster are giving new meaning to the phrase “box lunch” with their reinvented shipping container, the GrowUp Box.

Inside the 20-foot container, tilapia are farmed in tanks specially designed to ensure the fish enough room to grow, while on top, greens are cultivated in vertical columns. The water from the tilapia tanks circulates through the columns, where the fish waste provides nourishment to about 400 plants. The fish and greens are sold to area restaurants.

The project’s parent company, GrowUp Urban Farms, consults with people looking to build their own boxes and is set to start building the first commercial-scale aquaponics farm in London soon, Hofman said.

Beacon Food Forest, Seattle, Washington, US

Opening to the public this spring, the Beacon Food Forest in Seattle is turning a piece of public land into an edible forest garden.

Residents will be welcome to forage in the forest, a 7-acre plot — adjacent to a city park — featuring fruit and nut trees, a pumpkin patch and dozens of berry bushes. The goal is to mimic a natural ecosystem, creating a space that requires less maintenance and offers higher yields, co-founder Glenn Herlihy says.

Pasona Group, Tokyo, Japan

At the Tokyo headquarters of the Pasona Group, a staffing company, tomatoes dangle from the ceiling, herbs grow fragrantly in meeting rooms and a rice paddy is the lobby centerpiece. The plants are intended to relax employees, encourage innovative thinking about agriculture and create a sense of community as workers tend to the crops. The foods grown in the office are prepared and served in the company cafeteria.

Farmery, North Carolina and TBA, US

Benjamin Greene, founder of the Farmery, plans to make the journey from farm to store more efficient by eliminating it almost entirely. The Farmery will be an 8,000-square-foot market with food shopping on the lower level and mushrooms, greens and fruits growing on the upper level. Whatever is not grown on site will be sourced locally.

A smaller, Kickstarter-funded prototype — what Greene calls “a souped-up produce stand” — is currently in operation in Durham, North Carolina, and the first full-scale store is coming this fall, Greene says. The location, however, is being kept under wraps for now.

Sky Greens, Lim Chu Kang area, Singapore

Singapore, one of the most densely populated nations in the world, has little room available for farming. So inventor and entrepreneur Jack Ng created the Sky Greens system to grow more food in less space. Think of it as a plant skyscraper.

The equipment holds up to 32 trays of greens — including lettuce, spinach and a variety of Asian greens — on a tall, narrow A-frame structure. The plants slowly rotate, as if on a Ferris wheel, so each tray gets sufficient exposure to sunlight.

Sky Greens, which launched commercial operations in October 2012, harvests and delivers vegetables to Singaporean markets every day.

Brooklyn Grange, Brooklyn, New York, US

The Brooklyn Grange comprises two and a half acres of growing space high atop a pair of office buildings. “We’re looking at ways to increase food production without increasing agricultural footprint,” spokeswoman Anastasia Plakias says.

The operation grows more than 50,000lbs of food each year, which it sells through farmers markets, CSA subscriptions and wholesale accounts. In addition to boosting New York City’s local food supply, the farm also absorbs more than 1m gallons of stormwater every year, reducing the load the city’s systems must manage.

Deu Horta Na Telha, São Paulo, Brazil

After 30 years of building urban gardens in São Paulo, agricultural technician Marcos Victorino started running out of cultivable land. As part of his research work at local college Faculdade Cantareira, he designed a way to turn roofs, balconies and paved areas across the city into miniature farms. Victorino turns large roof tiles upside down, creating a long, V-shaped trough that can be filled with soil.

These tile beds are elevated, making them easily accessible to children and the handicapped. Because the tiles are watertight, they hold in moisture, allowing growers to make the most of an increasingly limited water supply.

Prinzessinnengarten, Berlin, Germany

The Prinzessinnengarten is an urban farm nestled in the shadow of the former Berlin Wall, between unused subway stops, graffiti-ed concrete walls and aging apartment blocks. Inside vine-covered fences grows a wide range of vegetables, all planted in easy-to-move containers — recycled Tetra Paks, rice sacks, and plastic crates — that allow the entire operation to be moved if needed. Visitors can pick vegetables, learn about seed harvesting and vegetable pickling, or visit the café to enjoy snacks made from the garden’s produce.

UrbanOrganics
Photo: Urban Organics

Urban Organics, St. Paul, Minnesota, US

Located in a building formerly occupied by a commercial brewery, Urban Organics is an aquaponics operation that provides salad greens and fish to grocery stores and restaurants using just 2% of the water of conventional agriculture. Founder Fred Haberman, CEO of Minneapolis marketing agency Haberman, hopes the for-profit farm will prove the commercial viability of aquaponics and help spur economic development in the area. “If we can do that, I believe you’ll see more of these types of facilities popping up,” he said.

Lufa Farms, Montreal, Canada

The goal of Lufa Farms in Montreal is to create a “local food engine”, says the company’s greenhouse director Lauren Rathmell.

At the heart of the operation are two sprawling rooftop greenhouses — currently totaling 1.75 acres — that produce a range of vegetables: greens and herbs, peppers and eggplants. The produce is packaged with locally sourced goods like handmade pastas, fresh bread and dark baking chocolate, and delivered to approximately 4,000 customers each week.

And the business isn’t stopping there: It has two more greenhouses in the works.

This story originally ran on TheGuardian.com on July 2, 2014. Click here to see the original and a lot more awesome urban farm photos. Do it. It’s worth it.