A Model Network
National Good Food Network
How do we scale up good food? This question is at the core of sustainable food system development. Despite increased media attention and consumer awareness about how our food is produced, good food, that is healthy, green, and fair, is still unaffordable or unavailable for many people in the U.S. Though many factors are to blame, our food distribution system – the broad-ranging network of relationships and infrastructure that brings food from farms to consumer, has a major impact on what kind of food is sold, where, and for what price. In most cases, profit, above health, sustainability, and geographic access, dictates this system.
National Good Food Network's goal is to create market based solutions that bring more food from sustainable sources to more people and places.
The National Good Food Network, an initiative of the Wallace Center at Winrock International, has convened a diverse array of stakeholders – from half-acre farmers and non-profit food hubs to multi-national distributors and food service management companies – to tackle this dilemma. Their goal is to create market based solutions in food distribution that will bring more food from sustainable sources to more people and places.
Getting Good Food to 10%
Fifteen years ago, food that was healthy, fair, affordable, and ecologically and humanely produced was not easy to come by. One example of this is organic foods sales (the category of sustainably produced food which has the best data), which made up less than 1% of total food sales in 2000. A persistent challenge for organic and other sustainable producers was accessing wholesale market channels. For the most part, sustainably produced food was available in farmers markets and other direct to consumer venues, and those venues were in short supply back then – in 2000, there were just 2,863 farmers markets.
One influential player, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, wanted to make 10% of the food supply healthy, fair, affordable, and green. In order to make that shift, there was an understanding among sustainable food system advocates that good food would have to get into scaled up markets, such as institutions and grocery stores. But in the early 2000s, that idea had not yet come to pass.
“Institutional purchasing [from source-identified, local, smaller-scale farms] didn’t exist back then,” said Jeff Farbman, coordinator of the National Good Food Network.
Nonetheless, with a vision and a 10% benchmark established, the Kellogg Foundation gave a grant to the Wallace Center to work on market based strategies that could scale up good food across the board, and in particular in wholesale marketing channels. The National Good Food Network came out of that grant.
To kick off creation of the network, NGFN provided grants to eight regional lead organizations around the country (NESAWG being one of them). These organizations recruited stakeholders and held visioning sessions to identify what is needed in their region to scale up good food to wholesale markets. Then, in 2008, NGFN held a national convening to kick off the formation of the network. Over 150 producers, retailers, distributors, funders, non profits and food systems professionals spent three days connecting with potential partners in their region and learning about and sharing models, business plans, and best practices for the work of scaling up.
A New Supply Chain Model
One of NGFN’s early projects was working with Sysco, a multinational foodservice distributor, to help them meet increasing demand from their customer base for more local, sustainably grown food items. The network partnered with three of the company’s 185 regional operating units, in Chicago, Michigan, and Kansas, and provided knowledge and expertise from its network participants, which included entrepreneurs, business advisors, non-profits, researchers, and other food system practitioners.
Value chains are different from traditional supply chains in that participants in the chain (farmers, aggregators, distributors, retailers, etc.) form strategic, “win-win” relationships that benefit everyone, rather than one-off transactions focused on individual gain.
The partnership succeeded in not only increasing the amount of regionally and sustainably grown products Sysco sold to its customers, but it also introduced a new business model to the company – value chains. This model is different from a traditional supply chain in that participants in the chain (farmers, aggregators, distributors, retailers, etc.) form strategic, “win-win” relationships that benefit everyone, rather than one-off transactions focused on individual gain. Value chains also work to communicate product attributes such as locally or sustainably grown to consumers.
The Right Kind of Tools
The NGFN continues to support practitioners working to develop values-based supply chains, food hubs, and other models that focus on scaling up good food through aggregation and distribution to larger markets. They do this through their conferences and webinars, newsletter, publications (such as their Food Hub Benchmarking Study, as well as resources from other experts), and their 1000-member strong Food Hub Community of Practice listserv, a forum for conversations about challenges, success stories, best practices, and expertise related to food hubs.
NGFN is not a formal, membership-based network – it is open to anyone who is looking to find support and information from this particular corner of the good food movement. According to Farbman, people come to the network with a specific request, whether it’s an information need or a project collaborator, and they are usually able to find it, with NGFN acting as the connector. ”People who are served, as well as those professionals who address needs, are the people who are part of the network.”
A key factor to their success in maintaining this kind of network is to hit the right level of engagement with participants. Farbman stresses that “communications should be consistent but not too frequent. Because much of our network is loosely connected to us, regular, high quality content is great; too much and we exceed a ‘bother’ threshold; too little, and the connection disappears.” The active and growing participation in their conferences, webinars and listserv is evidence that NGFN has figured out how to provide enough of the right kind of support to participants without overwhelming them.
Jesse Rye, Co-Executive Director of Farm Fresh Rhode Island, which works to grow Rhode Island’s local, sustainable food system, agrees. “A lot of the work going on in food hubs is outside the normal business of food distribution, “ said Rye. “NGFN has recognized that, helped us feel comfortable, and given us the tools we need.”
“A lot of the work going on in food hubs is outside the normal business of food distribution. NGFN has recognized that, helped us feel comfortable, and given us the tools we need.”
Farbman also said that a number of business relationships have come out of the forums NGFN convenes. Rye made a connection with another food hub operator at a food hub site visit Wallace Center organized. This colleague was able to offer Rye specific expertise on how to get Good Handling Practices certification for their food hub warehouse.
Given the difficulty in measuring how much of our food supply qualifies as fair, green, and healthy, we don’t know yet if we’ve reached that 10% benchmark for good food. However, the vision of expanding access to good food into scaled up wholesale markets is becoming a reality, which, to Farbman, is pretty exciting.
“The National Good Food Network was formed at the very beginning of mainstream consumer interest in Good Food. As the market has grown, more wholesale buyers are asking for food with values,” Farbman said. “We have been helping farmers and food enterprises navigate this rapidly moving sector in a way that benefits them, their communities and the environment.”
For more information about the National Good Food Network, visit www.ngfn.org.