The Future of Good Groceries

A panel of four grocery industry experts met in San Francisco on July 25th to discuss the future of local sustainable groceries in wake of the Amazon-Whole Foods merger. The event was hosted by the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), thus a clear focus on the impact of family-owned businesses, local farmers, and farmers markets was addressed. Though many viewpoints were touched on, a resounding sentiment of the importance for consumers to understand where their food comes from was the lasting resolve.

Notable panelist Bentley Hall, CEO of Good Eggs, an eCommerce Bay Area grocery delivery service,¬†emphasized the importance of buying directly from local food-makers. Hall asserted their Farm-to-Table model not only allows them to deliver “absurdly fresh” groceries to their customers, it also helps to boost local commerce. Hall voiced his concerns for the poor quality of most perishables in the US and noted that Amazon’s logistic operations are likely to exacerbate this.

A notion that “Amazon Fresh” is in actuality anything but fresh was shared amongst the panelists. Barb Stuckey, President of Mattson, an independent developer of new foods and beverages, stated that although Amazon has had a presence in the online grocery industry for over six years, “they still haven’t figured it out.” There is no denying, however, that this industry is on the rise. Stuckey noted that currently 3.5% – 4.5% of all US food purchases are made online. This percentage is fixed to escalate when comparing the 20% of online food purchases reported in London.

Given the inevitable rise of online grocery shopping, local food-makers are pressed with finding a business model to help them survive. Panelist Albert Straus, Organic Dairy Farmer and Founder & CEO of Straus Family Creamery, believes local food-makers need to rehaul their infrastructure and focus on eCommerce strategies. Straus worries that national online retailers won’t prioritize the import issues such as organic or NON-GMO foods, but will instead be driven by bottom lines. He is, however hopeful that a local farmer champion will emerge to help pave the way for others that are struggling.

While the ability to aid in the welfare of local food-makers may seem doubtful for some, we as consumers can have a say in their future. Panelist Liz Martinez, Director of Product for Bi-Rite, a ¬†Family run Grocery Market in San Francisco, says the general public can make a huge impact on the survival of local food-makers. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) the average US resident spends only 6.4% of their annual consumer expenditures on food, that’s less than any of the other 83 countries for which the USDA tracks data. Martinez argues that if Americans were willing to spend a little more on their food, we could make the farming industry viable, sustainable, and profitable.

Moderator Marcy Coburn, Executive Director of CUESA, closed the discussion by asking panelists what advice they would give to local food-makers and consumers during this shopping evolution. The panelists encouraged consumers to choose local groceries whenever possible and to be open to spending more money on better quality food. They urged local food makers to not only accept the shift in consumer purchasing trends, but to embrace them as a way to sustainably grow their profits and harvest a business model that will thrive.