Into the Abyss: Why the Local Food Movement Needs to Stop Congratulating Itself

Chris Newman
Jan 8, 2017 · 7 min read

Last night, my wife and I watched a Redbox movie on the tiny 15” television in our bedroom. It’s called “War Dogs,” and it’s about a pair of 20-something arms dealers who have wacky and unlawful adventures in procuring weapons for the U.S. military. The movie’s anti-heroes make a living by scouring a website that should produce a cold sweat in anyone that’s ever been involved in any way with government contracting: FedBizOpps. This is a website that lists practically every requisition for products and services needed by the Federal government — from office supplies to military hardware — and invites contractors to bid on the work. After watching the movie it occurred to me that the government probably uses the site to buy food as well, so I went digging and came across an object lesson in why Local has a gaping hole in its strategy for global domination of agriculture.

Big Food, Tiny Prices

Interestingly, nearly all of the food requisitions I came across were for the Bureau of Prisons. Even the small orders were for staggering amounts of food: 5,000 lbs of ground beef here, 2,000 lbs of chicken leg quarters there, 2,500 lbs of turkey breast over here. There was one contract for a straight bid on 20,000 lbs of beef burritos. The smaller offerings typically involved at least 10,000 lbs of meat. The larger orders shot north of a quarter-million pounds. And the only thing more shocking than the amount of food involved was the price.The most recent award (January 6, as of this writing) for well over 100,000 lbs of various meats was awarded to two suppliers for a combined total of about $30,000. Another, awarded just 24 hours prior, involved 127,000 lbs of beef, pork, and chicken plus about an equal weight of frozen vegetables and various packaged food, including 70,000 lbs of pancakes. This one was awarded across nine suppliers at a total value of about $190K. Fun sidebar: $50K of this was awarded to a company in Texas that paid a $100K fine in 2002 after pleading guilty to selling adulterated meat.

This is staggeringly cheap food being sold to the federal government by an awful lot of companies with the word “Importers” in their names. I was surprised by how few of the procurement items made any mention of a requirement for USDA inspection.

Breaking these contracts down into raw numbers (dividing the total amount awarded by the pounds of product procured), the Fed was procuring ground beef for less than $1.20/lb and chicken for under 40 cents/lb. Except the meat actually costs a lot less than that, because the awards cover not only the food itself, but the costs of packing, shipping, insurance, labor, administrative overhead, and profit. It isn’t unreasonable to assume the government’s contractors were getting ground beef, from God knows where*, for well under $1 per pound.

This, of course is just the tip of the iceberg. My “Meats” search yielded 18 pages of results (the awards I’ve mentioned were just the first few on the first page), and all 18 pages were just for the Bureau of Prisons. BoP has to feed the roughly 190,000 people in Federal lockup. Compare this to the 1.5 million active duty personnel in the U.S. military, and I shudder to think how much meat is procured by the U.S. Army alone. Then of course there’s all the institutional food procurement that goes on outside the aegis of the Fed; public schools and universities, hospitals, prisons and other institutions run at the state, county, or municipal level. All of them are contracting their food needs to the lowest bidder, and the shady provenance of these race-to-the-bottom products is enough to make a vegetarian out of just about anyone.

As a Candle to the Sun

I argued in my personal diary that the Local movement needs to temper its enthusiasm about its to-date success, lest it become complacent and assured of the inevitability of its ultimate triumph. Specifically, I claimed that no one should expect any Coke bottling plants to shut their doors because your neighbor’s kids’ lemonade stand doubled its sales compared to last year. Similarly, no one should interpret the better-than-linear growth of Local sales as the death knell for industrial agriculture. Why?

Take a farm like Virginia’s own Polyface Farms of Swoope, VA. By the standards of farms that produce real, wholesome, ecologically-oriented food, Polyface is a behemoth. When Michael Pollan made them famous back in 2006, they were producing some 125,000 pounds of beef, chicken, and pork every single year.* Assuming they’ve increased production four-fold since then (this is a VERY generous assumption based on my own observations of the farm), Polyface cranks out a half-million pounds of meat per year. This seems like a lot, until you realize that this monster farm’s entire annual production would barely fill two of the hundreds of meat requisitions put out by JUST the Bureau of Prisons last year. Those 190,000 inmates would have consumed nearly 25 million pounds of meat last year assuming their meat consumption patterns reflect the national average; we’d need 50 of my oversized Polyface farms just to feed the Federal prison population. Add in all the other federal and non-Federal institutional demand discussed earlier, and you realize just how tiny a drop in the bucket even the flagship farm of the real-food movement is.

It’s easy for farmers like me to look at healthy farm-to-table restaurant demand, or Charlottesville’s exploding City Market, or the multitudes of favorable echo chamber headlines about Local, and assume that everything’s on the right track. But a cursory look at the numbers surrounding institutional food cuts to a cold reality:

  • We have so far to go, it could be argued we haven’t really begun
  • We’ve let ourselves off the hook when it comes to solving the problem of “mainstreaming” the local food movement

Far too many of my fellow Local people — especially farmers — place this mainstreaming problem squarely on the shoulders of the consumer. We’re always telling the consumer what they need to do. I’ve heard recommendations ranging from the tone-deaf (“people just need to value food more and pay more for it”) to the nakedly unrealistic (“why do we need a New York City? Everybody should just move to the country and farm!”)

Frankly, I think this kind of buck-passing is beneath us. Our future on this planet hinges on us winning, and as my father said to me ad nauseam as a boy: “Winners want the ball.” So with that in mind, how do we make real and responsible food available to a rapidly urbanizing population that’s navigating seismic shifts in the global economy? Wages are flat even as costs of living continue to rise; how can we either convince them to pay more for real food or lower the cost of real food? Schools, prisons, hospitals, and the military aren’t going anywhere, and so the people in them must be fed. How do we replace the 25 cents/lb mystery meat we’re feeding our prisoners (and schoolchildren) with real food… without causing a taxpayer revolt.

These are hard problems; there are no answers in this article. But they’re the real problems. They’re the ones the Local/Sustainable movement — its farmers, policy advocates, entrepreneurs, and evangelist customers — has to solve if we’re going to win and save the world. Anything less ambitious, and all we’re doing is making ourselves feel better while hoping someone else gets up the nerve to stare into the abyss.

So let’s get to work. The abyss awaits.

Chris Newman

Sylvanaqua Farms, Earlysville VA

Chris Newman is a farmer in central Virginia, and can run real fast and jump real high. Visit our farm on Instagram and Twitter at @sylvanaquafarms. Please click the green heart button so my wife will think I’m cool. Like what I write? Your support here gives me more time to do it.

*Curiosity got the best of me, and I embarked on a quick search to find out just where one can get the cheapest of the cheap meat. The answer seems to be Alibaba. This online giant of global commerce featured vendors selling things like boneless chicken breast for as little at 25 cents a pound. One such vendor was located in Brazil, and offered the stuff for $600 USD per metric ton, with a minimum order of 28 metric tons.

**By comparison, my farm produced just 15,000 pounds of beef, chicken, and pork in 2016.

Chris Newman

Written by

Working toward a sustainable future with Sylvanaqua Farms, the Accokeek Foundation, and GreenMaven. Support it all here: https://www.patreon.com/farmermang

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