Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Foodie Breakfast in Chicago

I and 12 other farmers had breakfast in Chicago this week with 6 food writers, editors, and bloggers. The U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) sponsored the event so that farmers might learn to listen to what consumers are saying about food. Here are some of the things I took away from the meeting and subsequent blogs and online discussions.

Consumers care about "where" their food comes from. They appreciate that it goes through many steps to reach their plate and are concerned about what happens to the quality of the food along the way. Ultimately, the link to health or ill health is the motivator of these concerns.

"Labeling" seems like an obvious answer to these concerns for the consumer. "Why can't you label where stuff comes from so I can choose?" might be a question that is asked. In the absence of a "label" that is credible in their eyes they turn to various alternative in an attempt to accomplish the same thing. Perhaps they can "buy local" where they meet the individual that supposedly raised their food. The "CSA" concept is another attractive way to understand the source of their food. The "certified" programs are another method that the consumer uses to overcome the lack of "labeling". The vegetarian and vegan movements represent yet another attempt at controling percieved risk in the absence of a "label".

Another observation is that when I am asked "Where does food come from?" I tend to answer with "Why it comes from there." There is an obvious disconnect that the consumer hears and becomes suspicious. The consumer's next question is, "Why didn't you answer the question?". A question that in some minds has already been answered, "Because your big ag bosses don't want us to know" or "Because if we knew we would be appauled" or "Because it is only about the greed and the money".

Those consumers that are willing to listen to the "why" answer begin to shift their thinking and open up to the possibility that there are reasonable answers to the "where" questions. This is the power of a two way conversation. Listen and be listened to. When only one side is listening, either the farmer or the consumer, conversation is not happening and the exchange is futile. I observed both listening and not listening from all parties during breakfast.

Consumers have given little thought to the time required for the food system to change. They are accustomed to fast change. The latest and greatest is just around the corner. The thought that it took a generation for the food supply to adjust to the demand for "lean" has never occurred to them. The idea that the current generation of farmers was raised on and has perfected the concept of "effiency is the answer to everything" and will take a generation to change just is not acceptable. Today's consumer will be dead by then.

And then lastly, was the blog post after the breakfast that said something to the affect, "...the spin is true...". If the admitted "truth" is labeled as "spin" by the listening consumer then how can communication possibly happen? Do I come up with a "lie" that sounds "true" so it won't be dismissed as "spin"?

These are some of the big picture things I heard being said as I listened. I will be interested in the comments to see if I heard correctly.

Thanks for your thoughts.


  1. Thanks for sharing your experience. I had been wondering what you thought as I watched the tweets as you went through the day.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts here Chuck, I have heard others perspectives from this breakfast. I am glad to see that you took the time to evaluate how others felt about the conversation and are taking the time to consider their viewpoints.

  3. Really enjoyed hearing a point of view from the other side of the room.

  4. From a different discipline. I'm reading "Liars and Outliers" by Bruce Schneier which is a book about the social implications of security, how security 'decisions' are made etc. He talks a lot about why we stereotype, why we label, why we certify. It's because we don't know the person on the other side of the transaction well enough to trust them. (turns out that sociologists say we can only know about 150 people that well). So in the absence of personal knowledge and/or trust, we have to go to third party methods to determine whether or not to trust someone.

    If we don't trust the current systems well enough, we will invent or adopt new or different ones (grow my own food, buy from my neighbor, setup a coop) until we do feel comfortable.

    Jim Wildman