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Resource: Empowering Eaters Summit: Panel – Consumer/Retail Challenges and Making it Happen

Panel discussion – Consumer/Retail Challenges to a Sustainable Food System. Presented at the Empowering Eaters: Access, Affordability, Healthy Choices, and Food is Medicine Summit in Support of a National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health “The Health and Wellbeing of Future Generations in Policy.” Co-hosted by Duke University and Food Tank on March 3, 2024.

Panelists

  • Ken Kolb, Professor of Sociology, Furman University
  • Sean B. Cash, Associate Professor, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University
  • Maggie Funkhouser, Manager, Carrboro Farmers’ Market and Board Chair, The NC Farmers Market Network
  • Luke Saunders, CEO and Founder, Farmers Fridge
  • Moderated by Danielle Nierenberg, Food Tank

Transcript

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

I want to thank all of our panelists for joining us: Ken Kolb, Professor of Sociology, Furman University; Sean B. Cash, Associate Professor, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University; Maggie Funkhouser, Manager, Carrboro Farmers’ Market and Board Chair, The NC Farmers Market Network; Luke Saunders, CEO and Founder, Farmers Fridge.

Sean, I’d like to start with you and talk about dollar stores. They’re popping up around the country. They’re all over Baltimore where I live. They get a lot of criticism, but they’re also important for communities’ access to food. So how are consumers, how are eaters using them in a strategic way?

Sean B. Cash, Tufts University

Thank you very much for that question. So a big part of the work that my colleagues and I have been doing at Tufts has been looking at some of the ways in which the environments in which we purchase food have been changing, and dollar stores are one of the most dramatic parts of that. Across the country, we’ve been looking at scanner data, detailed information on what people are buying and where they’re buying it. And the role of traditional grocery stores in terms of where we’re spending our food dollars has dropped quite a bit over the past decade, about 4% nationally, but double that rate in rural areas and dollar stores are one of those other retail channels that have really been growing at the same time that some of these other changes are happening. When you walk into a dollar store, you see that there’s definitely a different mix of food that you might expect to see at a grocery store or other places.

Many of times there’s a lot of things that we want to see that we don’t see there, but the people who shop at dollar stores really like shopping at dollar stores. Some colleagues of ours at the Center for Science and Public Interest just released a report a few months ago, and that high level of satisfaction with dollar stores is an interesting finding in some of their work. So in the work we’ve been doing, we’ve seen that folks who are buying things at dollar stores, indeed those food items are on average less healthy than the things they might buy in traditional grocery stores or some of the other formats that have wider varieties.

But at the same time, those households that are spending more of their food dollar at dollar stores are also often buying healthier things in other places where they’re spending their money. So I think these nuances are really important when we think about how we have policies and interventions to try to encourage healthier eating. We want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to increase access to healthier food, but maybe we also want to be cautious about policies that are going to put constraints on households that are already working really hard to do the best they can in the environments in which they’re accessing food.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

Thank you so much for explaining those nuances. I’m wondering if in your research you’re finding a willingness or an ability for dollar stores to change a little here and there.

Sean B. Cash, Tufts University

I can’t comment on the conversations that they might be having inside their boardrooms and planning, but the dollar store model really relies on what you might call long distribution chains. So the same things that have made so successful competitively in the landscape are some of the things that I suspect internally are real challenges for some of the increased stocking of healthier food items that people might like to see. That doesn’t mean that we should let anyone off the hook and shouldn’t be still having those conversations. I also think there’s a lot of opportunities for communities and other programs to think about how the patterns of where people are going to buy food, how that fits in with people’s time used in patterns, how there might be opportunities for also increasing access to food in the areas where dollar stores have been so successful at locating.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

If only I could be a fly on the wall in that boardroom. Ken, if I can turn to you, when we last spoke, you mentioned that bringing food closer to people is only part of the equation when we’re addressing food insecurity. And you said that we also must understand household dynamics and time constraints that eaters face, and we’ve dug into that a little bit today, but I don’t think people truly understand the time constraints that people who are living in underserved or marginalized communities or who are not the people in this room, to be quite frank, what they’re facing every day.

Ken Kolb, Furman University

Yes, thank you for that. In my research, when I sit at people’s kitchen tables, on their front porches, asking them questions about where they shop, where they get their food, it becomes quite clear that being poor just takes forever. The litany of tasks and chores and hoops that you have to go through really puts some time constraints and that people, even if they’re close to a grocery store that sells healthy foods, they are time-starved. And so the economy of scale of home cooking within the home really depends on a number of factors. What I found was that it was the number of adults in the house with the same tastes who were there at the same time really made a trip to the store to bring food home to cook and prepare it as a meal, that’s what it took to make things work.

The problem is that we’re facing some serious demographic trends. In the United States in the past 60 years, average household size has dropped from 3.3 to 2.6. One in seven American adults lives alone. Under those situations, even if you can get access to a head of lettuce or a head of broccoli, that can be a headache because what are you going to do with that every single day for the next couple of days? So to meet customers where they are, to find ways to make home cooking work, we need to account for those household dynamics so that they can realistically make up for the time gap that their other constraints are placing on them.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

That isolation, when we talked about it before today, is so key to this and I think it’s something that maybe policy makers are forgetting, that households have really changed. You have this forum. How do you want to communicate that to them?

Ken Kolb, Furman University

I think if we can just identify the everyday realities, what are the economies of scale of home cooking to make it work, and to incorporate into interventions ways that can reduce the time constraints on family. Cooking is one part, but it’s the shopping and the chopping and the cutting and the preparing and the recipe making, all these things that can also be done by other agencies. So if other agencies can help families prepare and work in unison to create meal kits that can take advantage of wholesale food pricing, cut down on some of the time constraints when it comes to making the meals work at home, anything that you can do that can just address the time bind that people are in… They want to eat healthy, and even if they can access it and even if they can afford it, those household dynamics still might block them from being able to prepare it inside the home.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

And it could cut food waste too, which was talked about in the last panel. It’s such an interesting dynamic. Luke, I want to turn to you because as somebody who’s a part of the private sector, you’ve done such a great job of a lot of things, but the first one I want to talk about is helping eaters access fresh foods, really healthy foods, delicious foods, when their time is limited like we’ve been talking about. What does that look like for you as a company?

Luke Saunders, Farmers Fridge

We recognized a while ago that that’s one of the biggest factors. If you make $10 an hour and you have to spend an hour making your healthy meal, that it just costs you twice as much as a fast-food option. So for those of you who don’t know, Farmers Fridge puts food in vending machines. We operate in 22 markets across the country, and our whole mission is to make fresh, healthy food as accessible as a candy bar. So the idea that it could take two seconds, you walk up, you buy something, you can go and it’s ready to eat right there was really why we got started, but it’s also in the middle of the night, 24 hours a day, so you don’t have to worry about having to shut down. So that’s another thing we hear all the time is people in a hospital in the middle of the night wanted something healthy to eat, we are the only option, but time is probably the number one factor or thing our customers have in common.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

My co-founder, Bernie Pollack, his wife is a nurse and she depends on you daily. So thank you for that. I appreciate it. And a lot of frontline workers depend on Farmers Fridge. Maggie, I want to turn to you and I sort of had a different question for you, but I want to talk to you about this time issue first because farmers don’t have a lot of time and when you’re at the farmers’ market… I’ve worked at a couple in the past a million years ago. It is a rush, rush, rush. So here’s what I want to ask. There are a lot of farmers who are doing value added foods, some salads I’ve seen, that kind of thing. That’s difficult though if you’re a farmer who’s working every day in the field and then have to have the proper processing and that kind of thing. So what is your advice for farmers who want to have value-added foods at the farmers’ market, but are facing a ton of constraints? And if you can’t answer it, I’ll ask you the question that I had before, which I also will anyway.

Maggie Funkhouser, NC Farmers Market Network

I think that is a good question. And my panel mates might have a different perspective too. I think value-added foods are very popular, especially at the local level at farmers’ markets. Think like a strawberry farmer who wants to make a value-added jam or something like that. And it provides an additional margin, I guess you could say, for that product. But there is a level that business has to be to accommodate that separate product. Additionally, they would have to have facilities of some kind. They would have to have a workflow to ensure food safety, that sort of thing.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

This infrastructure issue is a real one that we talked about all day.

Maggie Funkhouser, NC Farmers Market Network

For sure.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

So there’s transport, there’s facilities, there’s these regulations and hoops for food safety that rightly farmers have to go through. It’s just a lot. So I’m wondering now if I can talk to you about how the producers you’re working with through farmers’ markets are working to address that food access at a local level, because that’s another problem often for farmers to jump through those SNAP hoops.

Maggie Funkhouser, NC Farmers Market Network

Yes, and I’m so excited that a lot of folks have brought up food access at the farmers’ market level. Big thank you to Mayor Williams for bringing up our double bucks program, which I’ll just kind of touch on. So in the past 10 or 15 years, farmers’ markets in North Carolina and across the country have really made an effort to not only accept SNAP, but offer an additional incentive, which is called different things depending on where you live. In the triangle, the farmers’ markets in Orange and Durham counties have a collective that we call double bucks. And for our farmers’ markets, it’s a true dollar for dollar match that is unlimited. So if someone comes to use their EBT card, they want to use $20 at the farmers’ market off their EBT card, we’ll give them an additional $20 that they can also spend on a SNAP eligible item, not just fruits and vegetables, which is somewhat unique.

Many will offer a cap up to a certain amount and only for fruits and vegetables, for example. So we are really, really lucky to be able to provide the service unlimited. So if you want to get $200 off your EBT card, we will give you $400 to spend at the farmers’ market. And for our farmers at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, all of our vendors who offer a SNAP eligible item will accept those benefits. And the way that farmers’ markets accept SNAP is often a little bit funny. So the Carrboro Farmers’ Market is a non-profit. We are the one with the FNS license. And so we accept those benefits and then we represent those dollars with a currency that can be used among the vendors. This is significant. It allows farmers’ markets to be able to offer this service and not put the burden of the license on the individual farmers. That can be complicated and expensive, just more barriers for them.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

Just produces this great local economy, very local economy that farmers’ market is its own economy, and I love that.

Maggie Funkhouser, NC Farmers Market Network

For sure. And for our SNAP program, we offer double bucks not only for SNAP, but also for the North Carolina Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, which is a seasonal benefit that’s offered for WIC participants as well as seniors who qualify on the basis of income. And we also offer a cash match. I know WIC has come up, so I wanted to just shout out to the way farmers’ markets can help with WIC. If someone wants to use their eWIC card, we can actually process it, but if they can show it to us, we’ll accept cash and double it. So that’s one way we-

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

So cool.

Maggie Funkhouser, NC Farmers Market Network

We’re trying to make the farmers market accessible for WIC families too.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

Thank you so much for making that all very clear. Sean, I want to go from farmers’ markets to online grocery shopping, which many folks did not do until 2020 hit and changed the world. You’re trying to make it easier for consumers who are shopping for groceries online to understand the nutritional benefits or the nutritional values, I think is the term you use, of the foods that you’re choosing. But a lot of these online labels are very confusing. They’re not consistent. I know FDA is trying to change that. What would you like to see happen?

Sean B. Cash, Tufts University

Yes, and just to take a step back, when we’re talking about online grocery and online food access, this is not a niche thing anymore. According to USDA, 80% of Americans bought food in some way online last year in a given year. 20% of Americans report that it’s a regular part of their habits and ways of getting food. And we’re talking about online grocery delivery or also its close cousin, ordering the things online and then going and picking it up at a grocer or another retailer, also buying things in other channels online, and then finally prepared food delivery, thinking about Uber Eats, DoorDash, companies like that. And in all of these platforms, what we have not seen is the sharing and provision of required information, things that we normally expect to see when we’re walking into a conventional store, things like the ingredient list, the nutrition facts panel, allergen disclosures.

We are not seeing these things consistently provided in these online environments. And to date, there’s not really a clear requirement that they be provided. Why is this important? Because this information does matter. At the population health level, people do better when they have more information. It’s a small but important part of how we might help encourage healthier choices and healthier outcomes. The other reason this concerns us is not just that people can’t necessarily easily access this when they’re choosing the food, but in the absence of requiring things like a nutrition facts panel or an ingredient list, that what you see instead is other information, information designed to sell us food rather than tell us about our food. And so in some of the studies we’ve been doing, we really see that’s what’s proliferating. There’s a lot more of this voluntary information and marketing type language, what’s sometimes called the romance copy. And you just can’t always or consistently find the information you would normally expect to see on a package of food or calorie disclosures in a restaurant not showing up in the third party platform.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

Sure. And I’ve also found it interesting for me, who often shops online that it represents sometimes a time constraint that I didn’t expect because I have to go Google what is in this actually and how much salt, whatever. That’s another time constraint for folks.

Sean B. Cash, Tufts University

And the opportunity for this is definitely not being realized because we know that in so many other areas of our lives, online tools are ways that connect us with information and allow us to personalize the things we’re searching for. So personally, I would love to see whether it’s voluntary or mandatory, more things that if I’m concerned about added sugar or sodium or trying to avoid certain allergens, that I should be able to set up as a consumer those search filters. There are regulatory actions that the relevant agencies can take. I don’t think we have time to talk about all that today. There have been some moves also to have new legislation to clarify this requirement.

The issue with that is that there’s been really great stuff that would close the loop on these online issues that have been proposed as part of the Food Labeling Modernization Act proposals that have gone in consistently year after year. But there’s a lot of other things that those bills include. And given the politics that we face today, large overhaul bills face more opposition. So again, I think that this online grocery thing and saying, “Hey, the information you’ve got in places under 20th century laws and 20th century environments should also apply to these more novel environments.” I would hope that’s a nonpartisan issue and that we can find a way to close those gaps.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

I would hope so too. Thank you so much, Sean. Ken, if I can come back to you, I’m interested in hearing from you what other opportunities do you see in the retail space or at the policy level to help ensure that eaters are not just food secure, getting enough calories, that’s just not enough anymore, but that they’re nutrition secure?

Ken Kolb, Furman University

I think it’s a targeted approach to try and find out the populations that we’re trying to reach. So there’s some folks where we’re just trying to get them up to a bare minimum of meeting their basic nutritional needs. And then there’s another group of folks who are just kind of hanging on. We can think about they are a family of four living just above the poverty line, maybe $28,000 a year. For them, a flat tire or a sick kid can just derail everything. It can spiral down, and then you need food assistance. You don’t really have total control and autonomy over what you’re eating. And then there’s a group that’s hovering a little bit above, let’s say 150% of the poverty line, maybe $35,000 a year for a family of four. They’re in a position where they have their basic needs met, they have a chance to explore and try out new foods.

But the risks are still really high because the risk of refusal for healthy foods, especially for families with children, are really acute. We were talking earlier in the green room that my daughter’s first year of her life was a hundred yards away from the Carrboro’s farmers’ market. And so we spent a lot of time trying to introduce new and foreign foods, healthy foods, dark greens, bitter foods. Kids have natural aversions to those. They don’t want to eat them upon first try. You need to introduce it to them time after time after time. And they may refuse it time after time after time until eventually you can get them to adopt and acquire some of those tastes. But that’s an expensive process.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

It’s a luxury, right?

Ken Kolb, Furman University

It’s a luxury. And so the economic constraints of, “I can just meet my basic needs to the point where I can now afford the risk to acquire new and healthier lifelong tastes that can stay with us,” to get kids to be able to acquire and adopt those embodied tastes to where it’s not just like they’re faking it, “Okay, mom, I like it,” it’s that they really do appreciate it, that costs a lot. And so it takes money to get people to like healthy food, and that’s something I think we need to acknowledge.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

And we don’t have a marketing campaign for that or a lobby. Yeah. Thank you for all of that. Maggie and Luke, if I can turn to you, we talked about the power of procurement earlier, and I think this is such a huge thing because to make food systems healthy and sustainable for all, that means that farmers are able to grow foods that are nutritious and delicious. And I’m wondering how you both think about the procurement process and what it means. So if you can talk about what Farmers Fridge does first, and then I’ll turn to Maggie.

Luke Saunders, Farmers Fridge

So, one of the principles behind Farmers Fridge was fresh, healthy food, a lot of fruits and vegetables. It’s like the one thing everybody agrees on makes you healthier. So we actually make all the food in one place. What this allows us to do is buy a lot more food directly from our farmer partners. So we actually just graduated to the level of scale where we’re skipping the Cisco and the US food step and able to get food directly in. It allows us to get higher quality ingredients, better shelf life for our customers, things like that. So I think just being able to aggregate that demand is a big part of how we thought about it from the beginning, which is more traditional CPG. You were hearing earlier a conversation about negotiating with farms and farmers and farm workers. That’s the aspiration that we had, is if you can be moving the market for pickles and tomatoes, but you’re doing it for salads, which have… We carry 150 ingredients in our pantry, that’s how you really positively impact the food system and also improve human health. So it’s that virtuous cycle.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

And that aggregation has really helped you scale over the last decade and some change?

Luke Saunders, Farmers Fridge

Yes, it’s a huge part of how we keep the food affordable and higher quality, and it actually gets better in step functions, so the food will get cheaper as we get bigger as a result.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

Maggie, you’re working with small farms, some are probably bigger than others, some are working with restaurants and cooperatives and local grocery stores. How do you sort of managed that procurement process and help them get bigger markets, get different markets?

Maggie Funkhouser, NC Farmers Market Network

Yes. I’m also here representing the North Carolina Farmers Market Network. We’re a somewhat brand new non-profit, so we are composed of a lot of what are called producers-only farmers’ markets, meaning that the businesses represented are the ones who grew or produced the food that is there. And so we in Carrboro are also producers-only farmers’ market. So one thing that I think is interesting, we work mostly with small and mid-sized farmers and fewer larger and conventional farmers. And one thing, especially in the triangle, we have such a rich local food ethic and local food economy, and a lot of our farmers, their business plan is to sell directly… Direct sales at farmers’ markets.

That is the business plan and that is like a totally viable business plan. In North Carolina, there are about 200 farmers’ markets across the state. We have a huge direct-to-consumer local food economy that is here. So, for our farmers, a lot of them have really built their businesses on selling direct-to-consumer at local farmers’ markets. And so for me, it’s about making sure that that remains viable for them so that they can continue to do it and maybe push past the two-year mark, the five-year mark, and really get into the long-term viability.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

That’s great. That’s so interesting. Thank you. Sean and Ken, I’m going to end with you because I think that the research you’re both doing is so important, but we know that there are research gaps that exist that are really crucial to making sure that folks are food and nutrition secure. Any calls to action on what should be invested in either from land grants or from private universities or the private sector?

Luke Saunders, Farmers Fridge

Well, I’ve got an idea.

Ken Kolb, Furman University

I think the resources we can harness from local farmers and local food, fresh food, that it’s hard to make it closer and cheaper to people who need it the most. They’re often in communities that are inundated with dollar stores. But however, I think that we can partner and pair these resources, that if we could bring healthy, fresh foods into the parking lots of dollar stores, honestly, through food assistance programs, USDA GusNIP, the former farmers to families program, all these healthy food boxes, if we could leverage the food assistance programs to bring those boxes to the parking lots of dollar stores, you could pair two mutually complementary resources.

Dollar stores sell non-perishable canned goods. They have a dairy case, a deli case, a frozen case. Those healthy food boxes are filled. There’s no SKU in that box that competes with what’s inside that store. It could bring customers to the store. Everybody needs toilet paper. And so if you get asking people to go to the place where you’re doing your shopping already and yet you can harness or leverage existing assistance resources, you don’t require an extra trip of people. You can save them time, you can save them money, and it doesn’t actually require building a whole new infrastructure.

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

Brilliant. Love it. Sean, as a member of the Tufts mafia, you get the last word.

Sean B. Cash, Tufts University

I agree with Ken’s idea here. And in terms of the calls for research and based on the conversations we’ve been having here today so far, the type of research that I think is most meaningful is that research that helps connect people’s lived experiences, really understanding where they are and the challenges they face in their own lives when we’re thinking about the household and consumer part of this and trying to connect that, whether it be through large data sources and other things, to all the things we’re trying to do large scale when we’re having national conversations about policies and programs. It’s hard for me as a researcher to keep that in mind. I think it’s hard for all of us in our day-to-day jobs to do, but that’s the bottom line for food systems. We need to meet people where they are and still think about where we need to go as a country.