Red Tomato Thoughts on the Whole Foods Produce Rating Launch

By Sue Futrell

Media commenters from both the conventional produce industry and environmental advocates have been quick to pounce on the new Whole Foods Produce Ratings, announced this week. The rating system, called Responsibly Grown, sorts fresh produce and floral into Unrated, Good, Better and Best categories, in hopes of setting a higher bar for growing practices by suppliers to WF and giving consumers the holy grail of something short, simple and catchy to make their shopping choices easier.

The criticisms range from the sweeping and defensive: “when you say your stuff is better it makes our stuff look bad;” to the impatient and cranky: “look how flawed this is, especially because they are using the same language (transparency) as McDonalds and therefore can’t be trusted.”

Most of the commentary doesn’t appear to have looked very closely at the WF program, and relies on a more thoroughly researched piece by Stephanie Strom in the NYTimes for second-hand sound bytes. NPR/WBUR also did a story that included more background and acknowledged the challenges WF faces in tackling something like this.

But already a quote from John Lyman of Lyman Orchards, one of the farmers we work with at Red Tomato, is being taken out of context and bounced around as a cute way of making fun of WF. Except that after John said ‘they want us to count earthworms,’ he went on to say that, as a grower who goes to extensive lengths to use eco-friendly practices on his farm, and usually gets lumped under the conventional label with no way to tell consumers about how he actually farms, he appreciates that Whole Foods is trying to do better.

That’s what all of the snarking doesn’t leave room for:  trying to do better.

WF has taken on something that both the conventional and the ecological sides of the conversation say is badly needed:  how do we create meaningful ways to define and measure sustainable practices in order to help our food system become moreso; and how do we help consumers–notoriously busy, impatient and with short attention spans while shopping for groceries– make choices that align with their concerns.  Why make fun of Whole Foods for trying?

We can say first hand, because we’ve gone through the rating process for a number of products and farms that supply WF via Red Tomato–the rating screen is extensive, ambitious, sometimes frustrating, requires extremely detailed responses to questions of farmers about their practices, and is based on imperfect but serious measures for a range of conservation and pest management practices that ordinarily are not the least bit visible to the end consumer.

That doesn’t even begin to touch on the extensive labeling and tracking of shipments from farm to store it takes to actually have the ratings show up on the store shelf. There is a massive focus on traceability underway in the entire food industry, especially produce. It is mainly driven by consumer concerns about food safety. Much of it leaves small and mid-size farms completely out of the process because the technology requirements are steep. Whole Foods, on the other hand, has gone to extra lengths to provide free labelling software and one-on-one support for growers and small suppliers like Red Tomato so we can provide the traceability needed. It’s a lot of extra work; but we don’t think traceability is a bad thing for those of us in the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food crowd.

We have problems with parts of the Rating system, for sure. Some of the blanket prohibitions on specific pesticides don’t make sense in every situation, for example; but that’s true with any attempt to create global standards that cover all crops despite differences of geography and climate. We’ll continue to push Whole Foods to allow for more nuance in those areas, and for the farmers we work with to be given room to make the right decisions for their farms.

Farmers, meanwhile, are beginning to be not just frustrated, but a bit angry at the degree to which consumers, and the retailers who compete for their shopping dollars, have claimed the right to tell them how to farm. The farmers we work with are smart, experienced growers. They understand marketing, and they share the concerns about health and environmental quality and worker safety. They are more than willing to address these by trying new practices, building the health of their farm ecosystems and pushing their pesticide use as low as they can. Every decision they make can mean they are risking their crops and in some cases the viability of their farms. But they don’t see anyone–retailers, government, or consumers–stepping up to share that risk. When a grower holds back a spray application for an emerging pest because he knows that by spraying, he will disappoint or be shut out of a major customer, and then loses the crop that year, and maybe for several years to come, the rest of us just find another place to buy our fruits and vegetables. The financial loss hits only the farmer.

So yea, likely some of them would rather not be counting earthworms to prove they are taking care of the soil in their orchard. But on the other hand, if someone who’s buying their fruit actually cares about the soil in their orchard, that’s not a bad thing. It might be a start toward something better.

None of this is simple.  It’s also not optional–most everyone who is paying attention agrees that we need to move our food and farm systems toward more sustainable practices, and soon. Rather than take cheap shots at Whole Foods and the growers who are trying to find a way through that challenging path, it would be nice to see the industry and consumer advocacy media give a little more thoughtful coverage to those attempts. Really digging in to the the realities of that hard process might help all of us figure out how we can do better.





Kings Food Raises the Bar for Freshness, Brings Back 24-Hour Produce Program

Kings Food Markets continues its tradition of bringing customers the freshest, highest-quality ingredients with the 2014 launch of its exclusive 24 Hour Just Picked Promise on Friday, May 23. The 24 Hour Just Picked Promise is Kings’ commitment to make locally grown, farm-fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs available to shoppers within 24 hours of being picked – giving shoppers the benefits of a local farm stand in the convenience of their neighborhood food markets.



Michael Rozyne: TEDxManhattan Sneak Peak

 

In order to introduce himself to the TEDxManhattan audience. Red Tomato’s founder and co-director, Michael Rozyne, answered a few questions about himself and the Red Tomato conversation that we call: The Truth in the Middle.

Enjoy the sneak peak!


Michael Rozyne

1) What’s the topic you’ll be speaking about?
The current food system isn’t built for local, no matter how much consumers demand it.  Why not?  Logistics!

 2) Why is this important?Without the right logistics, our region’s best produce won’t make it to markets where people shop. It won’t be competitive enough. This explains why millions of Northeasterners can’t find or afford a juicy, locally-grown tomato, even at peak season. And it means that a substantial portion of the people wanting locally-grown fruits and vegetables will be unsatisfied, if not frustrated, and will not, collectively, turn into the economic force they might to strengthen farms and cause new ones to be born.

3) Are there other projects you’re also passionate about right now – either yours or someone else’s?
Yes. It’s a subject we refer to at Red Tomato as The Truth of the Middle conversation. I’m paying a lot of attention these days to the extreme language and logic that characterizes the national talk about food, farms, and the environment. For example, the conversations about honey bees and colony collapse disorder, or the health dangers of consuming GMO foods—take place often at the all bad, all good level. Both ends of the discussion use science as their proof, but not always responsibly. And the internet doesn’t help truth or reason emerge—it provides a comfortable skrim for people to hide behind, or stay in a circular conversation only with people who agree with them. I think these difficult conversations are best had eyeball to eyeball. It’s made me very curious about the science of how we learn, listen (if at all), make up our minds, and how brains work. I especially enjoyed reading The Righteous Mind by TED talkster Jonathan Haidt. It’s impacting how I think about communicating, and listening, and collaborating.

4) Which other 2014 TEDxManhattan speakers are you excited about hearing?
Nikki Henderson of Peoples Grocery and Virginia Clarke of SAFSF are colleagues of Red Tomato, and I admire their work. Myra Goodman started and runs a company and brand I’ve watched for many years—I look forward to the Earthbound story. Lance Price’s subject—antibiotic resistance– is of great interest to me. I bet Clint Smith and Martha Redbone will be inspiring too. The whole list looks mighty inspiring!

5) Where can more information about your project be found?
Our website is full of info, profiles and video about our eco programs and the farmers we work with; Facebook and Twitter have all the latest, including blog posts from our staff.  We’ve been featured in a number of case studies in the past couple of years, including Harvard Business School; USDA Know Your Farmer Know Your Food; and University of Wisconsin.  You can find links to those and more on our website Resources page. In her book Raising Dough, [2011 TEDxManhattan speaker] Elizabeth U talks about our unique non-profit/market-based hybrid model.


TEDxManhattan Heroes: Michael Rozyne

As TEDxManhattan approaches, we’ve asked this year’s speakers to introduce themselves by answeriTEDxManhattan Heroes: Michael Rozyneng a few questions. Today we feature Michael Rozyne, Executive Director of Red Tomato, which connects farmers and consumers through marketing, trade, and education, and through a passionate belief that a family-farm, locally-based, ecological, fair trade food system is the way to a better tomato.


Eco Fruit Rocks! New Animated Video from Red Tomato

If you’ve ever tried finding local, sustainably produced fruit at the grocery store, you know it can be a daunting task. Especially if you live in parts of the country with challenging climate and pest issues, like the Northeast!

You often have to decide: Do I want sustainable or do I want something grown closer to home? We think it should be possible to have both!

To celebrate and spread the Eco message, we worked with our friends at Epipheo to put together this short animated video. Eco is all about happy farmers, happy eaters, and happy trees. This guy is so happy that he’s singing all about it!

Enjoy and share!