One thing both Democrats and Republicans agree on and you hear in the debates on both sides of the aisle is that during the last seven years in America, the rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer. The sad build on that is the fact that during this same period, the rich have also gotten healthier and the poor have gotten sicker. The rich have read T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study and Michael Pollan’s Food Rules. They have the knowledge of how to achieve a better diet, the access to organic foods and the money to pay for them.
At the recent Esca Bona symposium in Austin, Texas, natural and organic food manufacturers and thought leaders gathered to discuss broadening the appeal and access to better-for-you foods, and developing a supply chain that can support greater demand.
A recurring theme among those gathered in Austin, including the largest food and beverage manufacturers in the world and the tiniest start-ups, was this: cheap food is not cheap. Cheap food typically comes with the largest price tag of all: damaged agricultural land, water polluted with herbicides and a population ravaged by heart disease, obesity and cancer. And what galvanized the BFY Food and Beverage attendees at Esca Bona was the shared objective of mass access and affordability of good food.
If extracting the big ideas from Esca Bona begins with a translation of the Latin into English (Esca Bona means “Good Food”), it probably also requires a new definition of good food. Our post-WWII mentality has tended toward applying the manufacturing genius that won us the war to food production, i.e., creating vast scale at dramatically lower cost. Unfortunately for eaters (I believe that includes us all), that approach has led to a focus on filling us rather than truly nourishing us. It’s a strategy based on short-term gratification, not long-term health for us and for our planet.
Consumers are awakening to the idea that good food is high-nutrient food. Farmers are awakening to the fact that high-nutrient produce can actually have a higher yield, longer shelf life and better flavor, translating into a higher price for their crops. Simultaneously, they understand better than ever the idea that we need ever-increasing amounts of herbicides to feed the world is a myth.
But it looks like Big Food is struggling to keep pace with this shifting consumer preference. Catalina’s tracking of the top 100 CPG brands shows that despite overall category growth, the top brands are losing both dollar share and market share. Ninety of the top 100 lost market share in the year ending June 30, 2015.
Rich or poor, never underestimate the American consumer. The rich may have the resources to shift more quickly, but the shift toward nutrition-rich food is a broad and lasting one. Big Food can be a big part of the solution, but Big Food manufacturers are going to have to get there in a much more transparent and authentic way. Yesterday’s lawsuit by the Center for Science in the Public Interest against General Mills for alleged misleading claims for Cheerios Protein (the suit alleges the minimal increase in protein comes with a dramatic increase in sugar) is clear evidence that there are no short cuts, and that it’s never a good idea to be on the wrong side of the consumer.
As self-described “gangsta gardener” Ron Findley, the South Central L.A. pied piper for urban gardening, said to the Esca Bona crowd and to millions in his riveting TED Talk, “Food is the problem, and food is the solution.”