by Brian Shilhavy
Founder, Healthy Traditions
Last week (April, 2020), U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, appeared at the White House Coronavirus Task Force press conference to explain why the country is facing some food shortages, such as meats, in grocery stores, even though there is plenty of food in the country.
The problem is the commodity-based food distribution system, which is experiencing bottle necks right now due to restaurants and other food establishments being shut down across the country due to the coronavirus restrictions.
A significant portion of commodity-based food sales is processed, packaged, and distributed for businesses, and not for consumers who purchase food in stores and supermarkets.
So with the decline in food sales to businesses, there has also been a corresponding demand for food in grocery stores from consumers who would normally be eating more at restaurants, schools, ball parks, work places, etc.
Lisa Held, writing for Civil Eats, highlighted the problem in an article published recently:
“It’s like Armageddon, but we’ll get through it,” Benjamin Walker explained over the phone in mid-March. That day, sales at Baldor—the New York-based food distribution company where Walker is the vice president of sales and marketing—had dropped by 85 percent.
With 90 percent of its business focused on food service, Baldor’s 400 trucks are typically loaded with specialty produce, meats, and baked goods bound for restaurants, hotels, schools, and stadiums in New York City, Boston, and Washington, D.C. In other words, its food goes to all of the institutions that have been shut down by the coronavirus pandemic.
“The shimmer of hope for us is the 10 percent of retail [sales we were already doing],” Walker said. “That’s really the only food channel operating at the moment, and that supply chain has been maxed out.” Over the last months, Walker and his team have been acting quickly to onboard new accounts and reroute those trucks.
As shoppers across the country have stockpiled food in anticipation of weeks or months of eating at home, there has been significant panic at the sight of empty shelves in grocery stores. Experts and food-industry groups have jumped in to assure the public, in various publications, that the American food supply was strong and those shelves do not reflect shortages. Instead, they were said to be a reflection of behind-the-scenes adjustments that need to be made by manufacturers, distributors, and retailers to keep up with where people are eating. (Full article here.)
There are a lot of businesses that get a piece of the pie that is our food system here in the U.S., controlling the flow of food from the farm to the consumer.
When everything is going well, it is like a high-speed train going from one destination to another. And most of the food you see in your grocery store, or eat at institutions, is heavily subsidized by taxpayers as well, keeping food cheap, and not representing the true cost to produce that food.
But when a crisis hits the nation, such as the current coronavirus pandemic, it just takes one section of the train to derail and cause the entire system to start failing, and potentially to completely derail.
And the effects we are seeing today as a result of the nationwide lock downs, are really a small problem in the grand scheme of things when it comes to food distribution in this country.
Just think of what the effects could potentially look like if, for example, transportation was disrupted due to energy disruptions, or communication was disrupted due to electrical grid issues, or telecommunication issues.
This is mild in comparison to what might happen, for example, if the country found itself in a real war, and not a “war” on a virus, where an enemy could bring down the power grid, disrupt the Internet, etc.
This should be a wake up call that our nation’s food distribution system is incredibly vulnerable.
The Food Freedom Movement
Back in 2011, some small communities in the state of Maine began what many today call the “Food Freedom” movement, where local municipalities passed “Food Sovereignty” laws, seeking to bypass State and Federal regulations to allow farmers to sell their products directly to consumers in their community, cutting out all the “middlemen” in the food distribution system within their local communities. See:
“Food Sovereignty” law passed in small Maine town to allow sale of locally produced food without interference of regulators
Such arrangements are win-win situations for consumers and farmers in their communities. Farmers are able to charge a higher price, usually for a better quality product as well, and it keeps costs down for the consumer by bypassing all the middlemen in the process.
The consumer still usually pays a higher price than the commodity products in grocery stores, because government subsidies are generally not available for such farm-to-consumer sales, but the consumer gets a far better quality product, and develops a relationship in their community with the producers of the food, where accountability is much more transparent, in contrast to commodity food purchased in most grocery stores where the consumer has no idea where the food came from, or even which country it may have come from.
As can be expected, there was strong push back from state and federal regulators, and these local laws in Maine went through many court battles.
But lawmakers realized that this was a popular concept with the citizens of their state, and so state-wide bills were proposed, and in 2017, the governor of Maine signed “the Maine Food Sovereignty Act.”
There are still many hurdles and challenges to open up direct farm-to-consumer sales in the U.S., but Wyoming has been recognized as one of the best examples today of a Food Freedom law, and if the commodity-based food system does fail, either in the short-term future, or in the future under a more severe national crisis, residents of Wyoming might be in the best position to still obtain food from producers in their state.
Baylen Linnekin, writing for Reason Magazine, recently highlighted the advantages of Wyoming’s Food Freedom Act, especially in light of potential meat shortages now facing the nation’s commodity food system.
Wyoming’s first-and-best-in-the-nation food freedom law just keeps getting better.
Wyoming’s groundbreaking Food Freedom Act has served as a national model for how states can deregulate many in-state food sales. The five-year-old law opened up many previously illegal food transactions in Wyoming, and has delivered on its promise to benefit ranchers, other food entrepreneurs, and consumers alike. And it’s done so without a single case of foodborne illness being tied to any foods sold under the law.
The law also keeps getting better. As I detailed a column just last month, an amendment to the Act will allow low-risk foods such as homemade jams to be sold in grocery stores and sold and consumed in restaurants.
That was great news. But yet another new amendment to the law, passed last month and set to take effect in July, could further bolster the fortunes of ranchers and consumers in the state.
A new animal share amendment will let consumers buy individual cuts of meat directly from ranchers though an animal-share agreement, completely outside of the typical U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection regime. That’s something that’s still illegal in the other 49 states. It’s also why the Wyoming law could be a game changer for ranchers in the state and—should other states follow suit—a valuable new revenue stream for farmers and ranchers across the country.
The new amendment was introduced by Wyoming State Rep. Tyler Lindholm (R), who co-sponsored the bipartisan Food Freedom Act five years ago.
“The idea for the bill is simple,” Lindholm—a rancher with whom I serve on the board of the nonprofit Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund—told me this week. “Let ranchers and farmers sell herd shares for their animals. That way the entire herd is ‘owned’ by all of the customers before slaughter, thereby meeting the exemption standards of the federal law, and now the rancher does not have to jump through the hoops of the Federal Meat Inspection Act and can utilize the smaller mom and pop butchers that still [exist] in most of our small towns.”
The premise behind animal shares isn’t new. For example, some states which prohibit raw (unpasteurized) milk sales allow distribution to people who’ve purchased shares in one or more of a farmer’s dairy cattle. These “herdshare” agreements let a farmer raise and care for the herd-shared livestock in exchange for providing some of its (typically unpasteurized) milk to share owners.
Meat sharing has been a bit more complicated. As I detail in my book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable, a consumer may buy a significant portion of a living cow—say one-quarter or one-half its post-slaughter weight—and take possession of its meat after it’s been slaughtered in a non-USDA approved facility without running afoul of USDA rules.
But that can mean buying more than 100-200 pounds of beef. Until the new Wyoming law, consumers who weren’t quite that hungry (or who wanted only a particular cut of meat) have had little option but to buy from farmers who’d had their animals processed under the USDA’s rules or to go to the grocery store for similarly inspected cuts.
The Wyoming amendment takes advantage of an exemption created under § 623(a) of the Federal Meat Inspection Act, which governs interstate and even most intrastate livestock slaughter and meat sales in this country. The FMIA exemption allows custom slaughtering of livestock by and for an “owner” of the animal. (Read the full article at Reason.com)
Time to Invest in Our Local Farmers: The Herd Share Economic Model
Healthy Traditions, has been selling grass-fed meats and pastured poultry and eggs online for more than a decade. We source these products from small-scale family farms, many of them Amish farms in western Wisconsin.
But we have never considered ourselves as a replacement for consumers to purchase these kinds of products directly from producers in their own communities. Direct sales from farm to consumer is always the best option, if it is available.
For one thing, the consumer can find similar, high-quality products such as we sell, at a much more affordable price than purchasing it from Healthy Traditions, by cutting out the middlemen, in this case us. We have to pay the farmers a fair price for their products, the products have to be stored in freezers, shipped with special packaging and dry ice, etc. – all middleman services that increase the price.
In addition to these added costs, our meats have to be processed in USDA certified processing plants to meet federal laws to sell food between states. There have been some seasons where we have had little to no chickens for sale, for example, because small-scale poultry processing plants that meet the standards for USDA inspectors are very few, and many go out of business after only a few years of trying to make it.
And with the current lock downs, more people are purchasing online, putting strains on our inventory as well.
The “herd share” or “animal share” model defined by Baylen Linnekin above, is a far better economic model, if we want to be serious about food security in this country. This model has served well in many parts of the country, because the farmer is not selling retail, and is not participating in the commodity food distribution system at all.
By allowing their neighbors and fellow state citizens to invest in their farm, by purchasing shares in their operation which gives them ownership of part of their livestock, they are producing a legal, contractual relationship with members of their community, which should bypass the many regulations that are designed only for the commodity food distribution system.
Courts around the country have a mixed-bag record of upholding these contractual rights, so maybe it is time to pass federal laws protecting such contracts?
Do you have a herd share operation? Are you a farmer who is interested in starting a herd share operation for members of your community and state?
If so, you can contact us. Put “Herdshare” in the subject of your email, and if there is enough interest, we will create a directory of herdshare programs around the U.S. so consumers have choices once the commodity-based food system fails.
The current U.S. food distribution system might survive the coronavirus crisis, but it would not take much to bring it to a screeching halt, sadly.
Food Freedom Laws Needed to Rebuild Economic Prosperity – Reestablish Relationships between Local Food Producers and Local Consumers