How We Can Take Care of Each Other: Equitable Food Distribution in the US

At SXSW, the Refresh Working Group (RWG) hosted a panel, “Re-linking the Food Supply Chain: Connecting Producers and Consumers,” a dialogue about reorienting the food distribution system in the US to enable more just and efficient outcomes. With three billion people worldwide suffering from malnutrition and 1.3 billion tons of food wasted annually, the panel offered critical insights into how the food system’s infrastructure could better serve both producers and consumers.

Empowering communities

At The Cook’s Nook, Austin’s first culinary incubator, panelist and RWG member Joi Chevalier is working to change the way communities produce, distribute, and consume food. For Chevalier, “Justice and equity comes when people can participate in the entire food chain through ownership.” With decades of experience in product management and marketing for Internet startups and Fortune 50 companies, she discussed how empowering local producers by connecting them with everything from technical support to workspace can help communities “feed their own.”

Strengthening markets

RWG member Ben Worley, CEO of Agrisource Data, described what he sees as a key economic justice concern that technology could help address: the plight of smallholder farmers, especially in the developing world. Often, those farmers find themselves beholden to distributors who provide them seed but force them to sell back their crops at deflated prices. Worley wants to use technology to help create free, transparent markets, by providing farmers with better data about what their products are worth and buyers with a more direct connection to those farmers. Attorney Molly Askin echoed Worley’s concerns, emphasizing the importance of recognizing that small farmers need everything from open market access to adequate communications infrastructure to compete with larger producers.

Improving logistics

For GoodR CEO Jasmine Crowe, creating a better food distribution system has a lot to do with diverting food that would otherwise be wasted and redistributing it to food insecure members of her community: “We have many seniors in this country who are receiving just $16/month in SNAP benefits, and I’ve met seniors who told me that they believe they’re dying by the can because that’s all they can afford.” At GoodR, Crowe uses blockchain software to solve key logistics issues that make it difficult to redistribute food so businesses can reduce their waste, save money, and contribute to their communities at the same time.

After asking a number of searching questions, James Beard Award-winning author and panel moderator Mayukh Sen ended on a hopeful note: “What does a just and equitable food system look like to you?” Looking forward and imagining such a system, Associate Program Director at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems and RWG member Michelle Miller described the change she hoped to see: “The Earth is really bountiful. There’s plenty of food. What’s not working is our distribution, how we share and collaborate to get food to tables. That’s a cultural thing, so my hope is that we’ll see a cultural shift, where we’re using food as it’s intended, to take care of each other.”

From a wide range of perspectives, the panel drove home one very important point: the US food distribution system is ripe for change. Large-scale policy initiatives, technological innovations, and individual action all have a place in this wide-ranging effort to transform how we create a more just and effective food system.

To find out more about how emerging technologies can help to improve the US food system, read our report, Refresh Food + Tech: From Soil to Supper.

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