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Resource: Empowering Eaters Summit: Panel – Food Security Means Environmental Sustainability

Panel Discussion – Food Security Means Environmental Sustainability. 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:

  • Debbie Hamrick, Director of Specialty Crops, North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation
  • Lauren Davis, Professor of Engineering, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University
  • Jennifer Norka, Director of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs, American Frozen Food Institute
  • Steven Jennings, Stakeholder Relations, Brand Lead, Health & Sustainability, Ahold Delhaize USA
  • Moderated by Norbert Wilson, Professor Duke Divinity, Sanford School of Public Policy, and Director, World Food Policy Center, Duke University

Transcript

Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank

In our next session, we are going to hear about the link between food security and environmental sustainability. Joining us, we will have Debbie Hamrick, the director of specialty crops for the North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation; Lauren Davis, a professor in the College of Engineering at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University; Jennifer Norka, the director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Frozen Food Institute; and Steven Jennings, the Stakeholder Relations and Brand Lead for Health and Sustainability at Ahold Delhaize USA. I’d like to welcome back to the stage Norbert Wilson, the director of Duke’s World Food Policy Center, who will be moderating the next session.

Norbert Wilson, Duke University

I’m really honored to lead this discussion on food security and environmental sustainability. We cannot talk about the food system without thinking about its connection to sustainability in its broader sense, environmental also in areas of providing social goods. Sustainable farms and sustainable food systems also need the ability to be profitable. We have an excellent panel to help us think about these multiple factors as we look at the food system in really constructive ways. I really want to start off with you, Debbie. Would you help us understand what growers need to produce the food necessary to support food security? How do you see sustainability fitting into this work?

Debbie Hamrick, NC Farm Bureau

Sure. I’d like to start by challenging Mr. Baldemar Velásquez on one point that he made. My sister, my brother and I did shares with my dad, halves for cucumbers a couple of years when I was in high school. When I was in the ninth grade, we figured out, as Mr. Velásquez talked about how to maximize our profit by which harvesting number ones. But he said that he was able to let the cucumbers grow overnight. I will tell you that in North Carolina when the temperature is right and it’s raining all day, you can hear the vines growing and the cucumbers expanding on the vine and you never get caught up. It is like this panic.

I still dream about that sometimes. You know that perennial test we forgot when we were in college? Growing cucumbers on the vine and trying to maximize our profit and from the ninth grade. The first rule of sustainability for a farm, and you just heard this from Mr. Velásquez, is profitability. If we can’t make profit on farms, the farms simply can’t be… They’re not viable. Only 5% of farmers in the United States are able to earn a full-time living farming, just 5%. Most of our farms are part-time and the farmers that are farming full-time are doing an awesome job.

Norbert Wilson, Duke University

I would like to now turn it over to Lauren and just understand a little bit more about some of the work that you’re doing. We know that farmers and retailers are major contributors to food banks. Can you talk to us a little bit about the role that food banks can play not only in serving communities that are facing food security insecurity, but also in reducing food loss and waste?

Lauren Davis, NC A&T

Sure. If you think about on one side we have roughly a third of the food that’s generated is unsold and potentially part of that goes to waste, goes into the landfill. Then on the other side of that, we have roughly as of 2022, 44 million households and Americans that are food insecure. Food banks are an integral part of the supply chain that helps to connect this potential food that’s available to those who actually need it. They work very hard to cultivate these relationships, not only with big box retailers like Walmart, Sam’s Club, local growers that we’ve heard about, like Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) farmers as well, to actually try to make sure that this food can be rescued and distributed through their very large network that they have of food pantries, soup kitchens, what they call partner agencies that are working on the front lines to actually serve people who are food insecure.

In addition to working collaboratively with the food system to rescue the food, they also rely on donations from the community. They work hand-in-hand with the state and the federal government. They are really doing the work of trying to make sure that the food that would end up in the landfill can actually be diverted to those in need.

Norbert Wilson, Duke University

Now, this is really important. I actually want to continue this idea of providing this really nutrient-dense food, especially for families that are struggling. Jennifer and Steven, frozen foods are one of the ways of actually changing that food that might go to waste and converting it so that it can be stored a little bit longer. Frozen foods represent really a healthy way to provide nutritious foods to those who are in need, and it can also provide for more affordable and accessible foods. Where do you see opportunities to improve that pipeline of fresh produce that might get transformed so that different individuals can access them?

Jennifer Norka, American Frozen Food Institute

I like that you pointed that out. Let’s remember that frozen starts off as fresh and it’s often a diversion market for fresh produce that maybe won’t be sold at retail or as an excess. But I think that there’s a huge opportunity to work on consumer perception around frozen foods. We are often finding that consumers do not understand the freezing process, and this is one of our most natural and ancient preservation methods, and it’s literally just a temperature state. Let’s start there. Let’s also talk about the technological advancements in the freezing process in the past decades. We create really high quality taste, texture, flavor in frozen foods today. It’s not like what maybe your grandparents talked about, mushy, wet, tasteless food. We do not have the same frozen food as those days and ages.

There’s so much innovation happening in that aisle that can meet any consumer’s diet, any consumer’s preference. There’s meals that are ready to heat for people that don’t have time or don’t have the cooking skills, or there’s innovative sides and additions as ingredients to create meals at home. I think these consumer education campaigns should also address how they are nutritionally equivalent to fresh foods. The freezing process actually locks in nutrients over time, and we have that longer shelf life period so people can access nutritious foods for a longer period of time.

Lastly, like you said, it helps with food waste and this can help at the consumer level with household food waste. We know through national consumer surveys that messaging doesn’t necessarily identify with consumers. But when you talk about food waste as a way to limit economic waste in a time when consumers are really struggling to stretch their food dollars with inflation and all of those things happening in the world, we need to lean in on how frozen can help them limit their food waste and limit their economic waste at home through portion control and portion balance where you’re not making too much. You’re not going to throw excess away or through having that amount that you only need to add into a recipe and you can save the rest for a later period.

Steven Jennings, Ahold Delhaize USA

Let’s start with, does anyone know what the heck an Ahold Delhaize USA is? Some hands, does anyone here know Food Lion? You all better raise your hand because there’s one right down the street, right? They also provided the food that you guys had for lunch there, which was very appreciative. Ahold Delhaize is a group of grocery retail brands. We are the largest East Coast grocery retail group on the East Coast stretching from Maine down to Georgia and over to Tennessee. We have over 2000 stores. We serve 30 million customers a week, a week. We have the opportunity to have a lot of impact in this space. We’re one of those companies Gavin was talking about on the previous panel. We’re on the business side and we want to sell food, but we recognize we need to be the role model to nudge our customers towards healthier choices. One of those paths, part of this question is to frozen.

What I wrote down as part of my notes to bring up is the pandemic shifted a lot of customer behaviors when it came to shopping. Some of it was you might not have had your favorite vegetable or something available in the produce department because we just didn’t have it. A lot of customers were shifting to frozen options, even canned options. As you know with the pandemic, everything was selling, but we focus on frozen a lot with all of our brands because of all the reasons that Jennifer just mentioned, even including myself. It’s a affordable, it’s accessible, and the great thing is it lasts a really long time.

One of the struggles with the perception of value when it comes to fresh sometimes with food insecure customers or even customers with limited means is that I don’t have maybe the refrigerator space for the fresh food, or it won’t last as long in my house, because we don’t eat it fast enough. Frozen does become a really great option. I know my freezer is absolutely full of petite broccoli florets, which Jennifer and I talked about earlier. I love them. It’s part of our job in this space is to bring those options for customers to make the best choice for their lifestyle and family.

Norbert Wilson, Duke University

I’ve got to say in my household, when there is a meal left over, it goes into the freezer, then it’s the debate of “Did we get it out?” We’re working on that, we’re working on that. But this raises an important idea about the challenge of supply chains and cold storage, and it happens at the farm because you got to make sure you can get the product off the field so it’s cooled and able to get it so that it doesn’t go bad. We know that this is a real challenge when we think about the charitable food sector. I would love to hear you all talk about how important is the cold chain. That’s probably a phrase that everyone doesn’t use all the time, but I think this is a crowd that would actually appreciate hearing the importance of these different actors along the supply chain needing to cool products down and get it to the next person.

Jennifer Norka, American Frozen Food Institute

I’m happy to start talking about cold chain. Yeah, if you are unfamiliar with the term cold chain or cold chain infrastructure, it’s refrigeration and infrastructure and it’s not just the freezer or refrigerator at your house, it’s at the retail level. It’s the transportation trucks that get it from the field to the processor area, from the processor to the warehouse that also has refrigerators and freezers that can hold the food and then distribute it out to the retailers. There is much needed investment to happen in this country on cold chain infrastructure for both frozen and refrigerated foods.

I think when we look to food distribution and food donation, that is a huge area where we could bolster cold chain infrastructure and capacity because oftentimes I think the food banks have the freezer and refrigerator capacity, but it’s those regional and local partners that might not have that capacity or they maybe have a household refrigerator available at their pantries. That creates an equitable distribution of food to the communities that can actually hold those foods. We’re not ensuring an equitable distribution of these frozen foods that people may want or need.

Lauren Davis, NC A&T

That’s a great point. Food banks are going to try to move the food to the places that can take them. As was mentioned, if the charitable agencies do not have enough capacity, because capacity is a big issue, they don’t have the capacity to take the foo, then to prevent the food from being wasted, it’s going to create problems of inequity within the distribution. The goal for every food bank is to make sure there’s fairness and distribution in the service areas that they support. They are actively trying to find ways to increase capacity within their network so that their partner agencies can receive nutritious, frozen, healthy food.

Debbie Hamrick, NC Farm Bureau

The cold chain actually begins on the farm. Proper post-harvest handling for any fresh fruit and vegetable is absolutely maximum. We don’t want to be calling the frozen folks with product that didn’t get handled correctly. Removing field heat immediately is just priority one for most growers of fresh fruits and vegetables. We’ve done a really great job here in the state of North Carolina of getting grant funding for some of our smaller farms that didn’t have cold chain capacity to be able to install coolers. We’ve been working hard on getting those smaller and middle-sized distributors to also have refrigerated trucks so that we can maximize the right temperature for the right product at the right time and make sure that the products that are delivered to retail are the highest quality possible.

Steven Jennings, Ahold Delhaize USA

I’ll just add validation for in real world is at, we don’t have robust like company-wide donation programs. We rely on the everyday heroes in our stores. It’s our store associates to have unique special relationships with the communities that they serve with pickup agents, whether it’s a local church, whether it’s a local soup kitchen, or whether it’s the larger food bank partner. The issue for capacity is spot on across the board is that we have food to donate. Unfortunately, what happens is a pickup agent will come to one of our stores, the store’s super proud of all the donations they’ve collected from frozen lean meats to fresh produce, etc., and then they show up in a little Honda Fit car and can only fit two boxes of the 20 that are offered.

Then when it gets back to, again, to the actual pantry or the church or the food bank, they have a household refrigerator that can’t support. Then they end up throwing the food away, unfortunately because it’s highly perishable. We do know, again, this is very regional and local. There are grants out there that help support some of these refrigeration capacities. We would be looking more for partners that are in that space, whether grants or donating larger, more commercial size refrigeration and freezer space.

Jennifer Norka, American Frozen Food Institute

There are even federal grants and loan programs like through the USDA that we can just continue to funnel money into to work on these projects.

Norbert Wilson, Duke University

I love the fact that talking about refrigeration, which is not something I thought we would necessarily do, it’s such an important part of how the supply chain works. If this is not working for farmers, farmers are not able to earn the highest profit they could from the produce that they’re producing. Otherwise, it has to go to some alternative market if it even makes it there without proper cooling. The charitable food sector doesn’t work if there’s not proper cooling. It’s also a challenge for those small pantries who may have a household refrigerator, which is wonderful, but it’s not enough.

I really appreciate how you all are seeing this and seeing these connections between how we can mitigate food loss and waste, which is a contributor to greenhouse gases, but it also helps farmers be profitable, but it helps the whole supply chain work. This is critical. I want to shift gears a little bit, because we’ve talked a bit about food as medicine, and so this is a question for everyone. What are some of the challenges around food donation or the Food is Medicine program on farms or in the retail space, and how can we improve the infrastructure to serve these communities better? We’ve talked about cold chain, are there some other ways of thinking about this?

Steven Jennings, Ahold Delhaize USA

One of the things which are not cool to talk about, or no one really thinks about, at least from a retail perspective, is we actually have a lot of tech challenges. Tech meaning so specific to Food is Medicine, there is so much great work out there right now with funneling funding through, we refer to it as healthy food benefits or healthy benefit cards, which are great because it makes a digital access to healthier, fresh, affordable foods, whether provided through healthcare funding or Medicaid, et cetera. But then they come into our stores and then that card doesn’t work. What happens on, we talk about silos a lot today, right? What happens is there’s all these folks with great very well intentions, but they didn’t follow it all the way through to what I refer to us as the last mile of a food purchase, which is in store, which is still 65% of all food sales are still in brick-and-mortar stores. Then that card doesn’t work.

You can imagine the checkout experience when the customer’s there excited about their $20 in produce this week, and then unfortunately maybe the associate’s not educated on the program either and they just simply say, “Doesn’t work.” to the client, something of that nature and it’s just mortifying for the customer. Then they’re less likely to use it again. That’s something that we have to work on and we’re doing a lot of work behind the scenes on trying to bring these parties together so that we can all ensure we’re on the same page so that we can offer the best experience for the shopper so they can get their benefits.

Another thing is going back to the shame and the dignity. I’ve been in the business for 28 years. I started as a bagger in one of our stores way back when. I can remember being, when I was finally promoted to cashier, I was so excited, the amount of experiences that I had being on that end of the checkout when a customer would come up and at that time they were still called food stamps and they would have to lean in and whisper how they were paying. That always chokes me up when I talk about it that always resonated with me is that this person came in, this family of three, four or five children and they had to whisper how they were paying for their food. Then, God forbid, they went over budget and then we had to start taking things off. Then you get the huffing and puffing of customers behind them that are upset because they’re, “Oh, I always pick the long line.”

All these things we don’t think of on a daily basis, but at that moment when they’re just trying to get food to their family, it’s the shame and the dignity and the undignified process sometimes of how we manage this at a retail environment. We work a lot on that, whether it’s through educational awareness and all those things, but those are some of the challenges we face every day. I would ask anybody, when you’re in the store and you think you have the wrong line, just maybe show a little bit more patience for the transaction ahead of you. You never know what someone’s going through.

Debbie Hamrick, NC Farm Bureau

I’d like to add to that. I think farmers are partners in this whole process and we need to start treating them equally like they are a partner. We heard from our prior speaker on labor that we’re seeing more and more imports, American fresh fruit and vegetable producers, their market share for the US market of fresh produce is expected to decline by 2.1% every year for the next 10 years. That’s just out in the USDA report. That’s not how we need to be treating our number one partner that provides healthy, fresh fruits and vegetables. All farmers need land, they need labor and they need a rational regulatory system in order to operate that gives them the tools that they need to be able to jiggle whatever they have around them to make a profit.

I want to give you an idea on the land piece. Here in North Carolina we have about 8 million acres that are in farmland. American Farmland Trust estimates that over the next few years by 2050, we’re going to lose one to 2 million acres of farmland to development. Now, I want to give you an idea of the 129 acres in Northern Durham County. That’s a great incubator farm. I’m so excited that Durham County has decided that they want to foster farmers coming in. But the state of North Carolina has lost 100,000 acres to solar panels in just the past few years. My county president in Washington County, we were on the phone on Friday and he said, “Yeah, Debbie, I’m surrounded by solar panels right now,” some of the prime farmland on the East Coast with the Castle-Hayne Aquifer underneath. We have water that California does not have to produce fruits and vegetables and we’re putting solar panels on that land. It’s an economic decision, but still as a country, we’re not valuing the farmer for the partner that the farm and the farmer really is in this whole discussion.

Lauren Davis, NC A&T

I wanted to add something about the Food is Medicine, from a supply chain perspective and from the charitable food assistance sector. Very quickly just wanted to say, food banks are non-profit organizations. They rely heavily on volunteers. Any type of additional programs such like senior boxes or working in a Food is Medicine, it requires volunteer support not only to prepare the boxes but also to deliver. There’s, as we talked about cold chain capacity, we also need to consider processing capacity, human material, labor constraints, those kinds of things that affect the ability of food banks to actually distribute as much food to people that they would like to.

Jennifer Norka, American Frozen Food Institute

I’ll round it out on the Food is Medicine conversation. I really think that we should focus on parity between fresh and frozen and other forms of fruits and vegetables. In today’s conference, I’ve heard people over emphasizing how we need to get people access to fresh fruits and vegetables, but like I said before, nutritional equivalency across fresh and frozen vegetables, they are picked from the field, they’re transported in their cold chain infrastructure. They’re often frozen within minutes locking in those nutrients and the great taste, quality and all those things. So currently produce prescription is limited to fresh only fruits and vegetables. When we look at GusNIP, which is the nutrition incentive, like double up books, it overwhelmingly prioritizes fresh fruits and vegetables over other forms with 86% of grant funding last year going to fresh only programs.

Then, of course, we talk about WIC where states have to elect to offer other forms. They’re required to offer fresh fruits and vegetables, they have to elect to offer other forms. There’s three that do not allow frozen to be sold through the WIC benefit. We need to ensure that people have choice in the matter and get to have what they need to have their family eat more produce. We have that produce consumption gap. I really think focusing on the all forms messaging across nutrition communication is important.

Norbert Wilson, Duke University

Thank you. What this conversation is helping me to appreciate is some policy change that can be enacted to improve our circumstances, but there are some trade-offs that we’re making. As long as if we do not recognize those trade-offs, we’re failing to actually make the best decisions. I think we’re at near at the end of our time and I would love to hear just as many of you who can contribute to this, how do we enact even just the smallest change to help us address how to make our food system more sustainable, and I mean it in the broadest sense possible.

Steven Jennings, Ahold Delhaize USA

For me it’s about it as simple as choices. We have to allow people to make the choices that are best for them and their family. The more that we focus on “Do this, not that,” guess what? We want to do the opposite. We verbally believe all foods fit, and Jennifer just mentioned that as well. When you start, it’s nudging behaviors towards whether it’s the healthier products or the more sustainable products, but shaming and finger-pointing, that’s not the way to make sustainable change. That’s what we stand on and that’s how we educate our customers and our associates.