Oregon’s growing movement toward eating local food purchased directly from local farmers has been steadily picking up steam for decades. Today, the work of farmers, restaurants, activists, and consumers has resulted in a vibrant local food culture, especially here in the Corvallis area. More broadly, this cultural change also signals an economic change. As consumers’ food choices move away from cost and convenience toward quality and locality, some of the biggest companies in the food industry seem to be following suit.
The Advocate spoke with the Corvallis Area Farmer’s Market (CAFM), the Corvallis School District, and surveyed over a dozen different restaurants about the importance of procuring their food directly from local sources, as well as their thoughts on the role of big corporate distributors in the local economy. We also spoke with a few different employees of Sysco, the country’s largest food distribution company, about how they are responding to changing customer demands and how serious they are about it.
Growing A Movement
In terms of revenue, large corporations still eclipse local and direct sales. Sysco brought in more than $55 billion in revenue in 2017. Their nationwide structure and history of buying up regional and international distribution companies gives them a unique command of markets across the country.
Though Sysco continues to pull down multi-billion dollar profits, some trends show that consumers are moving away from products like frozen foods (which made up 34 percent of Sysco’s 2015 sales, or $16.4 billion in revenue) toward fresh, locally-grown food, purchased right from those who grew it.
There are not many studies which thoroughly track “direct-to-consumer sales,” those sales made by farmers directly to consumers, but the existing data shows this category of sales has undergone significant growth spurts. A 2014 USDA report says direct-to-consumer sales jumped from $404 million to $1.2 billion between 1992 and 2007. It estimates the market was $4.8 billion by 2008, a twelvefold increase over 16 years.
According to Rebecca Landis, the director of the CAFM, Corvallis has featured local food offerings through venues like the First Alternative Co-op and CAFM itself since at least 1995, when Landis began working in the business. What was missing at the time was a larger conversation about reforming food systems, and changing the way we grow and distribute food on a community scale.
Landis said early work by the Corvallis Environmental Center (CEC) and Slow Food helped educate local institutions, like schools and restaurants, on the importance of ensuring food is grown, processed, and distributed locally — by locally-owned companies.
She named a dozen different groups in various fields now working on the issue of food systems, including nonprofit networks like the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition, political organizations like the League of Women Voters and the Benton County Health Department, and community organizations like Produce for the People and the South Corvallis Food Bank, among many others.
Part of the early work by the CEC and Slow Food involved staff from the school district, and included chef visits and tasting tables in schools, and an event called Local Food Connection at LBCC (now defunct). We contacted the school district to learn more about how their program has grown over the years.
The Kids Are (Eating) All Right
Sharon Gibson, the director of Food & Nutrition for the Corvallis School District, when asked about the district’s relationship with Sysco, said that “Sysco sometimes submits pricing” to their purchasing group, “but for school year 2018-2019, they did not submit pricing.” Instead, the district has a number of programs which keep them focused on local and sustainable foods.
“We are extremely passionate about local purchasing,” said Gibson via email, “We know the importance to healthy local foods and we continue to procure and purchase local whenever possible.”
“[We] have received over $100,000 [in grants] to source locally,” she continued, listing off the products such as milk, flour, beans, and tortillas — staple foods that other buyers often rely on big distributors to supply cheaply.
Students also learn how to grow food and get to enjoy the results. “At CHS we are using some of the school garden produce in the cafeteria at lunchtime,” Gibson said.
Ten of the 13 schools in the district participate in Farm to School, an organization which promotes food education and offers grants to schools, but Gibson told us that all of the schools in the district are provided local food.
Oregon State University has their own set of similar programs. The Center for Small Farms at OSU researches sustainability practices and transitioning to organic farming. The University Housing & Dining Services displays on their website whether certain products are grown within 100 miles of OSU or right there on campus.
They are also part of the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative, “a working group of scholars and experts […] launched by the Culinary Institute of America, the Harvard School of Public Health, and Stanford University.” The group has produced a list of principles to guide the foodservice industry, from “eating less red meat, less often” to being transparent about the purchasing and preparation of food.
When asked directly, however, the Housing and Dining office confirmed to The Advocate that Sysco was still OSU’s primary food distributor. The office did not respond to further emails requesting more information about their relationship with Sysco.
Good Food is Good Business
Despite some extra cost and a little less convenience, many businesses are choosing to go elsewhere when they deem corporate distributors unhealthy for their customers, their business, the local economy, or simply don’t trust the quality of their products. As restaurant sales make up well over half of Sysco’s total sales (64 percent in 2015), we asked local restaurants if they purchase from Sysco, and why or why not.
Fourteen restaurants responded to our request for comment, and only three confirmed they purchase products from Sysco. Two restaurants (who preferred to remain anonymous) confirmed they purchase some items from Sysco, but said Sysco is not their primary food distributor, both emphasizing that they use a variety of suppliers.
Block 15 was the only restaurant to confirm to us on the record that Sysco is their main food service supplier, and defended their decision. They have used Sysco since first opening in 2008, and believe Sysco is an effective (and cheaper) distributor for staple items like flour or oil. They also describe Sysco Portland as technically being an Oregon business, carrying Oregon food brands and working with local farms to source products. Block 15’s website features a list of many other local suppliers they use.
The majority of restaurants said they don’t purchase from Sysco, but reasons varied. Most preferred not to go on the record, but even those responses echoed each other — they simply believe part of being a local restaurant is working with local suppliers instead of large corporations.
Some restaurants benefit more than others simply by being bigger. One restaurant (who preferred to remain anonymous) said some specialty products from Sysco are only available in such large quantities that much of it would just go to waste. They purchase from the Co-op instead, which may charge a bit more but allows them to purchase from within the community and avoid wasting food.
What this means is businesses with large amounts of traffic like Block 15 benefit more from Sysco’s larger amounts of cheaper products as part of an economy of scale. These systems do not provide nearly as much benefit to smaller restaurants who need smaller quantities of specialty goods.
Others are more adamant in their stance against corporate food distribution, and were willing to go on the record. Danielle Lewis, Executive Chef at Castor in Corvallis, does not purchase anything from Sysco, and was willing to tell us why.
“Sysco doesn’t have the best rap in the restaurant industry,” said Lewis in an email, “We all assume they only carry processed, mass-produced products.”
“Whether or not they carry NW brands and source locally,” she continued, “they are still the middleman.”
She also agrees with those who want to support their local food economy. “Why not build a relationship and source directly from the purveyor?” Lewis said, “If we do not support local farmers and purveyors, before we know it, we will not have fresh food, it will only be processed food.”
Belly of the Beast
Local food has been central to Oregon’s restaurant scene since at least the early 1990s. We contacted Cory Schreiber, a James Beard award-winning chef and co-founder of Portland’s Wildwood Restaurant, who is renowned for his focus on sourcing everything from the local area.
“I realized when I came back to Oregon that the local ingredients were of premier quality,” Schreiber said, describing his return to Portland before founding Wildwood. He grew up watching his family at the famous Dan and Louis Oyster Bar, procuring and preparing fresh seafood every day. For him, the success of his local food ethos was simply “the right time, right place, right message.”
Schreiber has recently found work at Sysco as a chef consultant, advising the company on how to improve local food sourcing (among other things) in Oregon and southwest Washington. When asked why someone who spent much of their career in the local food movement would go to work for a giant company like Sysco, Schreiber answered honestly. He said he doesn’t think a company like Sysco would have hired him to do this kind of work 10 years ago, because “large companies move slower.” He thinks his hiring is a sign that they want to change.
“I kind of decided go into the belly of the beast,” Schreiber said. He had worked with the Department of Agriculture and the Art Institute of Portland in the culinary education field, but decided he could have a larger impact working at a company like Sysco. As a chef consultant, he gets a say over which products come in, offers advice on Sysco’s relationships with restaurants, and puts on fundraisers for local restaurants or communities. Sysco underwrites this work, which Schreiber thinks is the real power of working for them.
“Only large companies can really move the market in this way,” he said.
True Reform or Weathering
Block 15’s defense of Sysco Portland does have some merit. Schreiber’s work and Sysco’s publication of a series of plans and programs that, at least in writing, describe an intention to move toward sourcing more products locally looks better for them (on paper). However, when we asked for specific details on the amounts of local food they carry or from where they purchase it, they declined to give us the information on the basis that the term “local” can mean many different things.
Rebecca Landis of CAFM would agree that the word “local” can mean many different things, but may disagree as to what can be done about it. She thinks Sysco executives can certainly tell which way the wind is blowing, and don’t want to be seen as being against local food, but in her experience the company is just as mysterious about its definition of “local” as it was during our reporting.
CAFM is a member of the Sustainability Coalition’s Local 6 team, a group who explicitly defines local “as a product grown, processed or produced by a company owned and operated in the six counties surrounding Corvallis: Benton, Lane, Lincoln, Linn, Marion and Polk.” While defining terms is important, it seems that communities themselves have a much clearer sense of what “local” means.
Danielle Lewis’ concerns about Sysco’s “bad rap” are also well documented. In 2014, Sysco was fined $19.4 million by the California Department of Public Health for illegally storing large quantities of products, including milk and raw meat, in unrefrigerated sheds for long periods of time. In 2015, the Federal Trade Commission blocked Sysco from purchasing US Foods for $8.2 billion, under antitrust laws. US Foods was (and is) Sysco’s primary competitor and the second largest company in the food distribution industry.
Sysco showcases a variety of plans to source more food locally and take on more ecologically sustainable business habits. In the long run, however, it remains to be seen whether they want to put “local” and “organic” labels on the same products, or whether this is the truly the beginning of a deeper commitment to reform.
If communities like Corvallis are any indication, it may be in the economic interest of companies like Sysco to turn away from nationwide distribution chains moving frozen goods and start looking at the ground around their feet.
By Ian MacRonald