Brainstorming a Resilient Supply Chain

by NYC Food Policy Editor

Guest article by Anup Joshi, Chief Culinary Officer at Green Top Farms & 40 Under 40 2023 Cohort

Based on my experience during the pandemic, I believe we already have the funds, technology, and personnel available to sustainably emergency-proof our supply chains. What we are missing is the impetus to strengthen those capabilities in advance of the next emergency.

As an example, the Farmers to Families Food Box (FFFB) Program was put together in May 2020 to provide emergency food relief. Our team repurposed a vacant kitchen facility at John F. Kennedy International Airport to receive, assemble, and deliver 260,000 pantry boxes in six weeks. The box included fresh fruit and vegetables from farms on Long Island, as well as liquid eggs, milk, cheese, and fully cooked protein. We dispatched and delivered the boxes to food pantries and other non-profits for pickup. This example of a short, to the point supply chain from farm to table could be replicated outside of an emergency feeding program to power our communities full-time.

Food waste is another opportunity to reinforce the supply chain ahead of the next emergency. Our food system is for-profit, so profitable products are selected for production. When overproduction or reduced demand makes those products less profitable, the decision to abandon the raw material is too easy. 

Let’s explore ways to make that decision harder. Stories of farmers dumping milk or culling herds should be replaced with those describing food rescue, preservation, and low-cost production. There is no need to wait until the next emergency to mobilize these forces to our benefit. That way when another emergency arises, we won’t need to pivot on the spot; we can just do more of what we are already doing.

Last-mile delivery of fresh food is a different type of challenge, but given what we know about processed foods, it is a challenge well worth accepting. Fresh food is inherently healthier than ultra-processed, sugar-loaded, shelf-stable foods that we tend to lean on for emergency and institutional feeding. Strengthening that fresh supply chain will result in improved access to nutritional benefits that are otherwise inaccessible. 

All of our resources, from the smallest church basement or short-order café to the largest food banks and industrial manufacturing plants, have a part to play in this transformation. Doing the work and taking the time will be well worth it for like-minded small businesses looking for a way to emergency-proof their business.

Here I’ve started to brainstorm ideas to strengthen our supply chain from the farm, to the kitchen, and with the courier that delivers it to our table. 

Funding our Farms

Land, credit, and easier access to capital are essential for developing the next generation of small growers. Therefore, we must ask the question: What investment vehicles exist for such a project? 

To answer that question, we should be thinking of ways to connect local farmers with the larger supply chain — perhaps by supporting community-supported agriculture (CSAs). When consumers buy shares in a farmer’s production in advance, they share in both the risks and the benefits of the farm. Given the proliferation of blockchain technology, is there a way to re-think the CSA model to gather the capital needed to sell next season’s crops before they are grown? What if you could round up the purchases on your credit card into a year-round CSA that services your zip code? And what if those farms were connected to processors in your area, so that last-mile delivery was even more efficient?

Preservation, Processing, Packaging

Once we get support to smaller farms, we need to process everything that they produce. I’ll refer to this as “Rescue Processing,” a step in the supply chain where surplus raw materials are routed to specialized facilities that can safely receive, cook (or preserve!), and package for distribution. This valuable infrastructure exists in every restaurant and cafe in the world; we just need to activate it for this purpose. Why pour milk down the drain when anybody with a stove and a stock pot can make yogurt?

Networking is the logical first step here, and the first constraint. If there is someone willing to pick up the milk you can’t sell before you discard it, you need to be connected and set up to work together before you are sitting on all that product. Let’s leverage our existing social networks for a greater good, and make it easy for farms to find people to take their extra product and process it.

A preservation mindset is key to outlining this network. By using natural methods of preservation to extend the shelf-life of fresh, nutritious food, we will render them accessible while maintaining their nutritional value. Yogurt, cheese, butter, ghee, and ice cream are just a few examples of how to preserve milk. Sauerkraut and kimchi preserve brassicas. Wine and jams preserve fruit. Bread and pasta preserve fresh wheat flour. Anchovies and sardines are tinned to preserve those fresh fish. These artisanal products contrast starkly with our modern preservation methods, headlined by ultra-processed foods that are technically shelf-stable but lack critical nutrients and are appearing more and more harmful as we learn more about them.

Thinking back to the FFFB program, it could pay to emulate this system — to scale it down and decentralize the process so that restaurants, cafes, and commercial kitchens could participate at whatever level their capacity allows. Not all facilities would be able to process raw material, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t participate — something like cold storage is, in itself, a valuable resource that can be tapped for receiving and dispatching food.

Last-Mile Delivery

Once we have rescued our raw materials and extended their shelf life, now we just need to get it to its consumer. First, let’s leverage existing technology in order to route the materials from farm to processor to end user. Then let’s expand upon that technology to increase the number of potential couriers. What if I could voluntarily pick up and deliver one pantry box every day to a family in need on my way to work, coordinated through a Doordash-style courier app? Or if I could see the route that all the materials took from the farm to my table, and support those businesses when I see them in my grocery store?

I invite this talented community to brainstorm these ideas and bring their own for discussion. Closing the loop in our food systems in a truly healthy way is a long term endeavor, but no idea or project is too small to have a great impact.  

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