Amazon, Aging Farmers, and Ag Reform: A Food Futures Panel at Uncorked

Earlier this week Uncorked hosted an event in collaboration with the PSU Center for Retail Leadership on the future of food, touching on topics including transparency, good governance, and advocacy. PSU’s Center for Retail Leadership supports the retail, food, beverage and consumer product industries, and our panel was comprised of practitioners across the private, public and policy sectors.

The panel consisted of Julia Niiro, the CEO of MilkRun, a local startup delivering food directly from farms to consumers; Jeff Brown, the GM of Food and Beverage at Sage Hospitality Resources, who manages Urban Farmer and Departure at The Nines Hotel; and John Willkom, the Director of CPG at NetRush, a digital retail agency that manages brands on Amazon. Uncorked’s CEO, Marcelino Alvarez, served as moderator.

The discussion ranged from Amazon’s recent purchase of Whole Foods to food policy and waste reduction—and how technology is impacting all of these areas. A few key themes emerged throughout the evening:

Knowledgeable consumers

The idea of educating consumers came up again and again, from talking about food transparency to behavior change.

You have to have consumers and food industry folks alike lobbying for what’s best for the customer. People “want to understand what a label means,” according to Willkom. This is especially important with the continued growth of food delivery services, like Instacart, as there isn’t the same level of policy for startups as there is with other areas of the food industry, such as the myriad of regulations restaurants work under.

The problem is much bigger than just asking questions and creating awareness. When Willkom worked with Kellogg’s, he said the company was providing cereal as a part of the U.S. government’s subsidized school breakfast and lunch program at different K-12 schools throughout the nation. Despite brands working to improve the nutritional value of their foods, oftentimes the children that received the free lunches wouldn’t eat the healthier items: “They wouldn’t eat them because they weren’t familiar with them,” Willkom said. “There is a huge challenge in this country around education but there has to be a bridge for transitioning kids.” According to Willkom, we need to talk to children about healthy eating and make changes over time, for instance changing the ingredients in a familiar cereal to make it healthier.

Future planning

Niiro’s company, which supports local farmers by taking food directly to consumers and skipping the grocery store, focuses on a key challenge: “85 percent of farmers are over 65, and their businesses are failing right now,” she said. Food suppliers are aging, and it’s crucial to have succession plans in place. In 2018, the farm bill, which affects agricultural laws, regulations and policies, will be up for discussion. This will be an important time to support new farmers and provide them with access to capital—also to help existing ones innovate.

Niiro further explained the current farming population, “is not digital at all, and their product is going to be lost on Amazon. So federal funding to help those companies innovate is critical.” Niiro lives on a farm in in Canby, OR, 35 miles outside of Portland, where she does not have good internet. “I very much live in a world where people still don’t have internet, and these are the people who are growing our food…there is a disconnect,” she said. The panel discussed bridging the divide by expanding broadband access to allow agriculture a fully-connect place at the digital table.

Fighting for food

In the midst of major industry changes like the recent Amazon purchase of Whole Foods, we all need to be more aware of the things we can do to create change.

“The consumer at the end of the day, they own that decision,” Willkom said. They can make the food industry pay attention “if people talk about certain things, whether it’s positive food things or even negative.”

Willkom brought up Surge soda and how it was discontinued in 2001, but consumers continued to talk about wanting it to come back. In 2015, Coca-Cola brought it back. “We can push to create the type of food environment we want to create,” he said, even in the face of technological changes.

Perhaps one of the best ways to sum up the discussion was made by Brown in the very beginning when he said that, “Food is a right,” and “a pivotal part of life that brings us all together.”

Technology is shaping the food industry in a way that we don’t quite yet understand, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t take action now to help influence what happens next. We can use technology to bring about a positive change for food.

So as we look forward into designing the future of food, we need to be aware of the current industry landscape and how everything we do now will impact what we are to have.

As a studio that is consistently working in shifting spaces and creating connections between interesting individuals, ideas, and partners, we host events with speakers from vastly different backgrounds to help our communities form a more diverse understanding of various sectors. To hear about more events like this in the future, follow us on Twitter.

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