Dispatches from the Beltway: Meeting the Demand for Sustainable Meat & Dairy

Earlier this month I ventured down to the nation's capital to attend Meeting the Demand: Growing Markets for Sustainable Meat and Dairy Production, a conference organized by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR). Turned out to be well worth the epic all-in-one-day roundtrip subway/train ride; ICCR managed to cram the schedule full of speakers, panels and workshops like pork in the farm bill. Lots of big ideas; lots of inspiring solutions.

Rather than burden you with a whole lot of extra words, I've compiled a list of 31 facts/thoughts/themes from the conference. Why 31 ? Because it's a prime number, silly. This should satisfy your sound-bite appetite - but if you hunger for the hearty stew of detailed description, leave questions in the comments section and I'll write more.

  1. There's Money in the Food Business : just count all the private jets at a Grocery Manufacturers Association conference! Unfortunately, farmers don't get much of the dough.
  2. Not-So-Fun Fact : while industrial dairy producers receive about 30% of the retail dollar spent by milk consumers, organic dairy producers receive about 26%.
  3. Weird Economics : when the cost of producing a good increases, consumers typically pay more for the good - but farmers face the unusual situation of having to absorb increased costs without being able to raise their prices.
  4. Obstacle to Sustainable Ag : lack of new farmers. It's tough to convince young people to farm; land and equipment are expensive, markets are unstable, and it's difficult (and sometimes impossible) to make a living.
  5. It's Expensive to Do Things Right : Organic livestock producers incur many additional expenses: e.g., organic certification costs, organic feed (~30% more expensive than non-organic), cost of labor, marketing expenses (necessary to distinguish organic from conventional), and the additional time required to develop the fertility of organic fields and the health of organic herds. Oh, and organic farmers don't benefit from all the big government subsidies doled out to industrial producers.
  6. Bright Idea : Western Sustainability Exchange hosts "speed dating" sessions to pair sustainable producers with prospective sustainable meat buyers.
  7. An Offal Lot of Waste : 40% of a beef cow is offal (fat, hides, bones, trim); if unused, processors often have to pay to dispose of it.
  8. Tip : before establishing a farm-to-institution food-purchasing program at your school/hospital/restaurant/cafeteria, develop a purchasing policy, be prepared to pay a premium, train wait staff (they'll need to explain why the sustainable burger doesn't cost 99 cents), and focus on products that have an impact.
  9. Quality, Not Quantity : meat is typically the most expensive item in the institutional food budget. So how can a food service program switch to sustainable without breaking the bank? Easy - use a smaller amount of higher quality sustainable meat. (FYI - you can use this technique even if you aren't running a cafeteria.)
  10. Balanced Menus Challenge : created by Physicians for Social Responsibility, this project challenges participating institutions to reduce meat purchases by 20% within a year and to start buying sustainably raised meat.
  11. Race to the Bottom : US schools are usually required to award food contracts to the lowest bidder. A preferable method (which is currently used in Europe) is the 100-point system: 51 points are awarded for price and 49 points for other important factors (sustainability, distance to school, etc.).
  12. Fun Fact : US schools typically spend about $1 per meal served.
  13. Take Back the Kitchen : many US schools haven't replaced cafeteria appliances since the '80s - so kitchen infrastructure upgrades will likely be necessary to shift from the heat-and-serve industro-meal model to menus with fresh, healthful, sustainable foods.
  14. More Weird Economics : to receive reimbursement from Uncle Sam, school cafeterias must maintain a certain level of food sales - this provides an incentive to offer popular, but unhealthy menu options (e.g., fast food and flavored milk).
  15. Bright Idea : institutional food service programs can offset the higher cost of sustainable foods by increasing the price of unhealthy options.
  16. Tip : high-quality food is a selling point for universities (apparently my alma mater never got the memo).
  17. Best New Term Award : "Pawprint" - the total animal welfare impact of producing a given good. The term was coined by Ellen Kennedy of Calvert Investments.
  18. Unsolicited Personal Opinion : Slow Money is a bad name for a good concept.
  19. Obstacle to Sustainable Ag : lack of food-processing infrastructure for non-industrial producers (e.g., slaughterhouses, mills, creameries, etc.). Potential pitfall: these facilities are expensive and operate with slim margins - so it's important to avoid overdeveloping processing capacity.
  20. Another Hurdle : lack of distribution networks for non-industrial foods. Existing networks need to be scaled up to include grocery stores, etc.
  21. Can't Get Enough Statistics? Check out the USDA's Organic Production Survey (released last month).
  22. Can't Get Enough Onlinesocialnetworking? : Check out PASA's Good Food Neighborhood for "informed, involved eaters."
  23. Local vs. Sustainable : what do these terms mean? How should they be measured? Which is more important? The good food movement needs to address these questions before big ag starts touting the benefits of local CAFO burgers.
  24. From the Top : food service directors play a key role in establishing farm-to-institution programs (at a hospital, for instance, patients and visitors have little influence on food policy since they're short-term consumers).
  25. Good News! the 2008 Farm Bill allows schools to implement maximum farm-to-school distances, making it easier for schools to buy from local farms!
  26. Bad News! most schools still go with the cheapest bid.
  27. Progressive Procurement : a few states have created pro-local school food policies - e.g., Maryland : schools are able to pay slightly higher prices for foods from MD farms; Rhode Island : gives a tax credit to farmers who sell to RI schools. Find more progressive purchasing policies on the Community Food Security Coalition site.
  28. Prudent Recommendations From Patrick Martins (Cofounder, Heritage Foods USA): To Farmers : provide reliable services; collaborate with other farmers to solve problems and share costs; don't fear middlemen. To Corporate Chefs : remember your oath to your craft - don't let emphasis on cost savings overshadow the quality of food! Start by sourcing 5 or 10% of your ingredients locally.To Investors : Invest in individuals. Trust these individuals.
  29. Stimulus : economic recovery policy has excluded agriculture. But the Fay-Penn Economic Development Council is on it - their Federal Agriculture Economic Stimulus Program describes policies to create a new generation of farmers while simultaneously stimulating the national economy.
  30. Policy Proposal : forgive small farmers' debt service requirements when commodity prices dip below 75% of production cost.
  31. Unsolicited Personal Opinion about Transportation : train travel is fantastic.

Want more details about any of the points above? Leave requests in the comment section and I'll elaborate.