Forging the Good Food Supply Chain
Tom McDougall, founder of 4P Foods, is a self-described “social justice activist stuck in an entrepreneur’s body.” Born and raised in the mid-Hudson Valley of New York State, he later moved to Washington, DC, and found himself on a life-changing path dedicating his work to the good food movement.
His contribution to the cause, 4P Foods, is a benefit corporation that works with over 100 local farms to deliver their sustainably produced food to customers in and around Washington, DC. The ultimate goal is to use food as a tool to create a more equitable, socially just and sustainable food system.
4P Foods’ approach to changing the food system is essentially two pronged. First, Tom explains, “We aggregate food from lots of small, good sustainable farmers in the mid-Atlantic region.” Second, they have “created a marketplace where we then deliver that food to people all over the DC metro region.” By establishing a market for food from area farmers AND making this food available in the DC metro area where high-quality, local, fresh food can be hard to come by, 4P Foods tackles food system change from two sides.
This program, Tom says, is like “a CSA on training wheels” because it brings food directly from farms to consumers without any single farm or group of farmers having to be responsible for running a CSA entirely on their own. “Our purpose is to connect them [farmers and consumers]. We want to connect them through infrastructure and technology so that we can build a whole alternative supply chain—a good food supply chain as a second option to the industrial one.”
Part of the problem is that the true cost of the food we eat is not reflected in the prices we pay. “We need to really get down to the core of how we measure pricing of things, because currently those of us working in the good food movement are trying to push water uphill because the playing field of price vs. cost is uneven and broken,” says Tom.
So how can you help shift the scales?
Tom advocates for getting involved. Volunteer at a food bank or an urban farm. Get your hands dirty at a community garden a couple times a week. Help out at a school that serves a majority of their students free and reduced lunches.
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Anne O’Connor talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Anne O’Connor.
ANNE O’CONNOR: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Tom McDougall, who is the founder of 4P Foods—a social enterprise focused on providing access to healthy, quality food. Welcome, Tom.
TOM MCDOUGALL: Hi, Anne. Thanks for having me.
AOC: Great to have you here. So, a social enterprise and focused on access to healthy, quality food. What exactly does 4P Foods do?
TM: We try to do, I guess, two things at the same time. Technically we are what the USDA would call a “food hub” in that we aggregate food from lots of small, good, sustainable farmers in the Mid-Atlantic region, and then we created a marketplace where we then deliver that food to people all over sort of the D.C. metro region. So, in that sense, our mission is one, sort of a duality—we’re trying to do two things. One: create a marketplace where good, small, sustainable, farmers that are using the practices that we all believe in can, not just survive out there, but really actually thrive by giving them access to markets. And two: if we get it right, we want to make sure that the food that those farmers are producing is accessible to everybody, regardless of income or race or class or zip code or wherever someone might be, because all too often the farm-to-table movement, as powerful and wonderful as it is, it is often something that’s accessed from a place of privilege, and it’s not always a right, it’s not always the norm. And that’s something we’re really hoping to change in the long run.
AOC: Right, so one of the things that is a complicated subject and one that we try to talk about a lot on Rootstock Radio is access to high-quality food. You know, for people who live in some places, they go into stores and they’ve got such abundance and such an amazing array of choices that it might be hard to understand how other people in the same country, or even in the same city, in the same neighborhoods close by, don’t have access. Can you talk about that for us and help us understand how that can be?
TM: Yeah, it’s the water we swim in, right? And big systemic problems are complex and sometimes slow moving or have been developed over long periods of time, and those types of problems are the exact kind that humanity is particularly bad at dealing with. Climate change might be another one, for example. But it’s striking to me how easy it is to have your eyes opened, if only you’re invited to do so. And what I mean by that—like, for example, where I live here in Washington, D.C., a city of six-hundred-some-odd thousand people, the life expectancy between Ward 3, which is one of our more affluent neighborhoods, and Ward 8, which is the poorest neighborhood of our city, the life expectancy difference is 16 years. And that has everything to do with diet-related illness, and those two neighborhoods are eight miles apart.
And then if you look at—I mean, to your point, like how that can be—in Ward 8 there’s exactly zero full-service grocery stores. And in Ward 7 and Ward 8, the two poorest wards in our city, there’s a hundred-and-fifty-some-odd thousand people, and there’s one and a half, roughly, full-service grocery stores, whereas in Ward 3 there are dozens.
AOC: Dozens—those are dozens in Ward 3, the more affluent ward.
AOC: And that would include everything probably from like a Whole Foods to—
TM: Whole Foods and Harris Teeters and Safeways and Trader Joe’s and micro markets, macro markets, but multiple farmer’s markets—anything and everything. So it’s easy to keep one’s head down in the sand—and I might draw analogies to any and all social problems that we have, that it’s easy to be blind to it if you so choose. But if you so choose not to be, it’s also really easy to see. And I think what’s powerful about that is once you see it, you can’t un-see it.
AOC: Right, so take a drive eight miles away and try to find some kale and some pine nuts for your salad, right?
TM: Try to find a store to stop in to even look for the kale, yeah.
AOC: That’s fascinating. I mean that fact alone is, I think, something that a lot of people just don’t understand in our country. Like you say, so if you want to, you can just continue making the food that you have. If you’re somebody who is into food and you have full access, it may seem like we just live in a land of abundance. And so, talk more about how easy it is to open your eyes to the other side of this.
TM: It really has to be a choice, because it is easy once you open your eyes, to see it. And there are many ways to plug in and do that, whether it’s volunteering or getting involved or living on three dollars a day in terms of a budget—there’s many, many challenges and ways to sort of do that once your eyes are opened. I think the harder, to your point of the question, is how does one even open their eyes to begin with? An invitation and a starting point to say, “Yeah, the food system is broken.” And depending on where you look, you can see that across the board.
For us, here in D.C., there are so many incredible organizations that are working on food access in our urban neighborhoods; and outside of D.C., also working on food access in rural neighborhoods, because access to good food is very much a problem at it relates to rural poverty as it does to urban poverty. But oftentimes those conversations are removed from one another.
But what I would suggest, usually, is getting involved. Volunteer for a couple hours at a food bank. Volunteer for a couple hours at an urban farm, at a community garden, at a school that is 80 percent or more free and reduced lunch. There are so many ways to plug in, wherever your city might be, to have your eyes opened.
AOC: So what does it mean to live in a community where you don’t have a grocery store? What’s that like for people in their diets and their health and, what you mentioned, their life span? What are the consequences?
TM: The direct framing of the question, really, what does it mean, what is it like? I don’t know. I can’t speak from a place of empathy because, as a white man from a middle-class neighborhood, I can’t speak to it. But what I have seen and what I do know is that it is fantastically difficult to eat a healthy, balanced diet, whether that’s access to healthy food… And as a slight tangent there, the conversation around access is an important one because there are multiple layers of access. I often think about it as kind of this three-legged stool, right, where there’s the financial access, the fact that our system has made it such that healthy food has a higher price point than unhealthy food. You know, a local kale salad at a restaurant is $14; a local Big Mac and fries is $4. And what does that mean to financial access?
The geographic access—how far do you need to go to even get good food? Is it four buses and two and a half hours? That doesn’t quite work. And then there’s a cultural access, right? Are healthy food options delivered in a way where people know how to prepare, have the time to prepare them, even want that food that might be being offered, even if it is healthy? So the access question is a nuanced one. The impacts, though, on the health is tremendous.
AOC: Right. It’s a good clarification that you can’t say for yourself how it is, right? But I was just thinking about the consequences. And one of the things that—I don’t know about the words that you were speaking of—but I can imagine, because this is true across the country, that while there might not be a grocery store, there are in fact convenience stores that have all kinds of highly processed, nutritionally vacant foods that are available very expensively. And so you said something in there that I think is really critical to understand. When you don’t have access to good food, a lot of things happen, and one of the things that we’ve seen is people forget how to cook. They forget how to prepare these foods and they don’t become part of their daily routine. And so when you do have vegetables, you don’t necessarily know how to prepare them so that people are like, “Yeah, I want to eat that, that sounds great.” Right? So it’s a complex set of problems.
TM: This has become my life’s work. I think where I often try to drive the food access conversation, it is around how we do, frankly, our global accounting system, because we are not accurately capturing the true costs of production and consumption of that crap food that you’re talking about—the highly processed, nutrient-deficient food. The price food on it might be x, let’s say 99 cents for a bag of chips—that’s the price that’s delivered to the consumer. However, the true cost of that thing is not even remotely captured in that 99 cents. Like what about the impact on our environment when we’re growing monocrop corn and soy in industrial agricultural methods, and the fact that 64 tons of topsoil runs off per acre every year because of that methodology? What about the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico because of the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides?
What about the tremendous cost on our health-care system because this kind of food is rapidly making us sick and obese to a level that we never have been before? And that becomes particularly acute in low-income neighborhoods where kids born today have a 1 in 3 chance of being diagnosed with Type 2 early onset diabetes. If you’re in a low-income neighborhood that’s 1 in 2. So 50 percent of kids that are born into these neighborhoods today will have their lives cut short because the system has made the choices for them about what food they have access to because we’re accurately capturing the cost.
So that’s sort of a long, bloviating, monologue to say that we need to really need to get down to core of how we measure pricing of things, because currently those of us working in the Good Food Movement are trying to push water uphill, because the playing field of prices versus cost is uneven and broken.
AOC: Right, and people often say, “Why does good food cost so much?” Well, it’s pay now or pay later, right? Like there’s a lot of costs that we don’t see in bad food. All the things that you just said—not nutritionally dense, not bioavailable, all those things. And the consequences of that part of the food system are enormous in our health systems and our environmental systems—so.
TM: So, there’s the doom and gloom!
AOC: (Laughing) There’s the doom and gloom!
TM: There’s the bad news!
AOC: Let’s talk about what the heck can we do about this, and what is 4P’s model—and what does 4P stand for, in any case?
TM: Yeah, so, as kind of like a—I end up describing myself often as a social justice activist stuck in an entrepreneur’s body. And the activist part of me, as you probably heard from my thought a moment ago, the activist part of me really gets pretty fired up about, sort of, our corporate system, the way that we really have scaled the business of agriculture to drive tremendous profits at the cost of other things. And oftentimes those other things are the costs of humanity and our environment and those two things combined.
So I was encouraged when the idea of the triple bottom line started to enter corporate board rooms, because that could’ve been the thing that really moved the needle towards more sustainable business practices. But in practice, this idea of the triple bottom line—people, planet, profit—has ended up being a really nice thing that lands in a corporate social responsibility report that’s printed on high-gloss paper and handed out at the end of the year. But oftentimes, and of course there are exceptions, but oftentimes triple-bottom-line thinking in a CSR report doesn’t drive key functions and business decisions of large multinational corporations.
So for us, we’re trying to kind of put ourselves forward as a case study. Like what if we actually measured the impact on the planet and the impact on people and the impact on our balance sheet, our P&Ls, our profit—what if we measured those three things equally? And so that’s the fourth “P,” or rather the first “P”: purpose. The purpose of our company is to measure people, planet, and profit equally.
And if we get this right and are able to scale and have a big impact, as we hope to do, we hope that it can be, like I said, a case study that not only other entrepreneurs and business builders and owners can point to as perhaps something to glean from, but also policy makers. If we can show policy makers that there’s just as good economic engines and benefits and job creation and environmental savings that come with this type of business ideas, maybe they’ll help to advance subsidies for carrots, and maybe a little bit less for soybeans, for example.
AOC: Well, and to talk also, a company that has that purpose, also, it will spill over into employee engagement and satisfaction and retention and recruitment. And there’s all kinds of research that shows that companies with missions and purposes are really where people want to work. And you talk about the millennial generation—that’s where people want to work. They don’t want to work at a place that’s just on paper, right?
TM: Absolutely, I couldn’t agree with that more.
So as I mentioned, we’re a food hub. What we do is aggregate food from hundreds of small holder farmers, predominately in the Mid-Atlantic, but a little bit further south in the winter months. And it’s everything from fruits and vegetables to grass-fed meats, and eggs, and dairy, cheeses and yogurts. So we aggregate this food for them. And we sort of describe what we do as almost a CSA on training wheels. Community-supported agricultures is wonderful, but oftentimes for busy, picky consumers they opt not to go with the CSA because sometimes the logistics are hard, or they don’t like kale all that much, or whatever it might be.
So we tried to take the principles of CSA—so transparent, local, sustainable ag—and update it a little bit to make it easier for consumers to engage. So they sign up for shares, we send them newsletters every week to tell them what’s coming in their shares. They can pick and pack and shop, so it’s almost like an online farmers’ market. We pair up all of their items in their bags with recipe ideas, and we deliver it either to their home or their office on a weekly basis. Or they can opt out whenever they want to—somebody once a month, once every other week. And it’s, you know, grocery shopping from your farmers’ market for all the people that the love the farmers’ market but never go; we’re kind of Plan B.
AOC: So, it’s almost like you’ve got the farmers’ market, the CSA—the community-supported ag—and then a little bit of like the online meal-planning bit, too, with the recipes and things, right, like, “Here, make this with these foods,” all rolled into one.
TM: Exactly, exactly. But in many ways it’s—we don’t intend to do that forever. That’s not our long-term reason for being. It’s more of a Trojan horse, if you will, into our real purpose. And what we’re hoping to do, what we’re planning to do, and what we’re rapidly moving towards is building an alternative supply chain. And what I mean by that is so many buyers, whether you’re an individual consumer, you know, at the household level, or a restaurant chef or a retail grocery store or a chain of retail grocery stores or a food service provider or an institution, or even on Amazon, right? Any of these big buyers, they want localized, smaller-scale, organic food in their supply chains. But this is really, really hard to do at scale, because you’ve got to work with hundreds if not thousands of farmers, the variety is tough, the supply chain doesn’t exist, the distribution is inefficient. There are so many challenges with bringing local to scale, because those two things inherently are almost at odds with each other.
So we think the onset of food hubs across the country in the last decade or so has been wonderful because they’ve helped to create these aggregation points of all of these, now, tens of thousands of small-holder farmers. Our purpose is to connect them. We want to connect them through infrastructure and technology so that we can build a whole alternative supply chain, a good food supply chain, as a second option to the industrial one. So if you’re a school system, if you’re a chef at a restaurant group, if you’re a buyer at a retail store, and you want to really do local but you don’t have the bandwidth to work with 700 farmers yourself, we want to be that source.
And this direct-to-consumer online CSA model thing is sort of the Trojan horse, like I said, to that because we are doing exactly that. We’re connecting dozens of hubs up and down the East Coast. We’re building that supply network. We’re investing in our technology so that those two systems of supply and the demand can finally speak to one another in a way that brings a tremendous amount of efficiency that currently isn’t there.
AOC: The complete opposite way that the world has been moving in terms of “Let me talk one person for 30 stores.” I mean, if you can make that easy for people, then yeah, the alternative food system, how ’bout it, right?
TM: Yeah. You know, Whole Foods, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Whole Foods basically created a category, and it was organic and natural. And now so many folks have sort of been able to come in behind there—and many kudos to folks like UNFI that created the distribution network and supply chain to be able to service folks like Whole Foods and all of the other stores that started to carry that organic and natural product. It was the creation, really, of a whole new category. And we think there’s an opportunity to do the same for local.
AOC: Right, well, and that was pushed, of course, from consumers, as it always is. Whole Foods would not have been able to create that category if it weren’t for committed and demanding consumers saying, “Hey, I want something different. I want a different choice, and here’s what I want.” It’s kind of a two-way street there.
And so that gets to a little bit about what I’m going to ask you next, which is: What can people do to support this in their purchasing habits? You talked a little bit about getting involved and understanding, opening your eyes to the way the food system works. What about the way they eat? What about the choices they’re making with their dollars?
TM: Yeah, it really depends on the household. And so I’d say there are tiers, right? I’m a huge advocate where, if you can, go directly to the source—buy from a farmer. Either show up at their farm or go to the farmers’ market or join a CSA that’s direct to a farm. That is the best way to make an impact to supporting local farms. I recognize, however, that that’s hard to do. So if that’s not an option, in each of your respective cities, many cities, generally there are resources that can point you to sort of that second layer. Companies like 4P Foods, for example, we exist, models like ours exist in most cities across the country now, which is great.
Google is a great starting point, but so is many Food Policy Councils. They are resources that have been set up by your local city or ordinance to influence policy but also be resources for the average consumer, where it’s, “Yeah, I know the food system is broken and I want to spend my dollars in a way that’s more ethical that aligns with my values, but jeez, where do I start? How do I do that?” Food Policy Councils are oftentimes a really good starting point to just ask questions. And, to the second part of your question, getting involved, most Food Policy Councils have open meetings that are open to the public, and they in fact want your input and advice and questions. So just show up at one of those meetings and be a fly on the wall and see where the conversation goes, and you’d be surprised how quickly you can get involved and learn about what’s happening in your respective town or city.
AOC: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I am Anne O’Connor, and today we’re talking about food access, social justice issues, all kinds of fascinating topics here, with Tom McDougall of 4P Foods.
As you get deeper and further into the system, what’s been something hopeful for you as you have learned about the challenges and learned about the ways that things are seemingly intractable and yet there’s a lot of us working to make some changes. What’s hopeful?
TM: I think a lot of things are hopeful. The fact that it seems like—one of my mentors, Shen in Food Future up in New York, he says that “food is the new black,” in the sense that everybody is really interested in food in one way or another. Which is cool, which is one of the great things about food, because you can plug in however you want. If you’re into animal rights, food is a good place to start. Environmental rights—start with food. Human rights—let’s talk about food. People can really plug into the food system in any way they want, which is wonderful. So I’m encouraged by how much—I’m almost overwhelmed with how many articles, videos, documentaries, tools, and organizations there are talking about food and [unclear—consistent?] change. So that, if nothing else, like the movement around good food is no doubt gaining traction and accelerating at an exponential pace, and that’s encouraging.
And the other that’s encouraging, as strange as this may sound, is technology. As much as, in many ways, it does divide us, the power for technology to bring transparency to our supply chains, from production to consumption and everything in between, I think will change the game. I’m optimistic [it] will change the game, because if people knew the full scope of where their food came from, how it was produced, how the workers were treated who were producing it, versus the alternative, I think they would make dramatically different choices at times.
But we don’t know. Our food system is designed to be opaque, but that’s starting to change. With the advancement of augmented reality and virtual reality and integrated ecommerce sites, we can really shed the light and pull back the smoke and mirrors of big industrial ag and show folks, A, what’s happening, and B, guide them towards a more ethical alternative. And to your point earlier, the consumer ultimately does have the power to make choice, to make the change. It just requires a little bit of education, and I think that will come with the advancement of technology and the tools with it.
AOC: I want to go back, as we begin to wrap up here, I want to talk one more time about this true cost accounting. You’ve talked about it a few times. And one of the things that people will very often talk about, you’re living in a dream world that people can have access to good food, and that’s a place of privilege that is a perspective that you get to have because of where you live and the resources that you have. How do you respond to that?
TM: Yeah, it’s… The thing that immediately came to mind is, one of my heroes here in D.C. is a woman named Lauren Shweder Biel, who runs DC Greens. She draws this beautiful analogy that—forgive me, Lauren, I’m probably going to butcher this a little bit—but this beautiful analogy that late in the nineteenth, early in the twentieth century, as people really began to migrate towards cities in astounding numbers, we began to have an issue with access to clean water. In New York City in particular, this became extremely acute where those that had access to money and resources were guaranteed clean water entering their neighborhoods, and those who didn’t were not. And so we had outbreaks of diseases that were tied to dirty water systems because people didn’t have access to the resources to fund their own clean water systems.
And as a society, we kind of looked in the mirror and thought and asked, “Can’t we do better than this? Can’t we all agree, regardless of politics, of where we come from, of who we are, where we immigrated from, can’t we all agree that access to clean water, regardless of race, income, neighborhood, should be a right? Can’t we at least agree on that?” And the answer was a resounding yes. Access to clean water should be a right, not a privilege.
And so policy makers got together, business leaders got together, organizations and communities got together and we—Flint, Michigan, being a tragic crisis aside—we more or less fixed that particular problem. Because we should, because it is not a business issue, a moral issue, a Republican or Democrat issue. It is a human issue that we can all get behind.
And I think—Lauren thinks; I completely agree with her—that we might be on that same conversational inflection, moment in conversation, right now to say, “Can’t we agree on this? Can’t we agree that access to good food that doesn’t kill us is a right? Can’t we agree that at least the baseline needs to start there? And how do we need to fundamentally re-chain, rework our system to get policy makers, business leaders organizations, and communities in a room to figure that out?” It’s complex, it’s hairy, it’s big, it’s long-term, but damn it, we need to do that.
TM: So to folks that would pose that question of, like, your head is in the clouds and that can’t possibly be possible—I would argue that not only do we have to, but that is the fight that all of us in the Good Food Movement are fighting. And we invite those naysayers to join us.
AOC: Okay, well this has been fantastic. Tell us, Tom McDougall, if our listeners wanted to learn more about your work and 4P Foods, where would they go?
TM: Check out our website—good place to start: www.4PFoods.com. We’ve got some pretty good social media platforms so Instagram.com/4PFoods, Facebook.com/4PFoods, Twitter.com/4Pfoods. Check us out. And if you can’t check us out, go check out a farm, or go check out one of your area organizations working on food access issues and report back to us, because we would love to hear what’s going on in your town.
AOC: Tom, thank you so much for joining me today.
TM: Thank you, I appreciate it.
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