Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Building Better Food Systems Online: Q&A with Provender's Jason Stanley

Today is World Food Day. First observed in 1981, this day draws global attention and energy to ending hunger. The theme of World Food Day for 2013, chosen by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, is Sustainable Food Systems for Food Security and Nutrition. According to the World Food Day USA website, “a food system is made up of all the processes that ensure our food arrives from ‘farm to fork’: how we grow, process, package, transport, store, market, purchase and eat our food.” In honor of that theme, we’re taking a closer look at one of the obstacles in the farm-to-fork world: a system built to favor the large-scale food distributor over small farms and consumers.

Enter Provender, a Montreal-based start-up whose innovative online marketplace allows chefs who want to serve fresh, high-quality, local ingredients to buy directly from local farms. Provender operates on a small scale for now, and is garnering great press in its first year. Recently, Jason Stanley, co-author of The Healthy College Cookbook and strategist for Provender, was kind enough to answer some of our questions about what it takes to bridge the gap between the farm and the table in the restaurant world, restoring diversity and profitability for small farms along the way.

Tell us about Provender

Right now, in any given region, most small- and medium-sized farms have few options but to sell their produce to one of only a handful of massive distributors. This means that farmers often end up taking home less than half of the final market value of the goods they produce. It also means that farmers’ planting decisions tend to be tightly circumscribed by the purchasing trends of these massive distributors, which ends up limiting the diversity and quality of crops grown.

At the other end of the supply chain, there are a great number of restaurants that want fresh, high-quality, local produce, but have trouble finding it. 

Provender aims to solve these problems by facilitating direct sales between local farms and restaurants through an online market. One the one hand, restaurants can easily and conveniently use our online marketplace to discover and purchase high-quality local crops and varieties that are ready for harvest at nearby farms. On the other hand, farmers can market, sell, and ship directly to restaurants, bypassing large-scale distributors that previously took an enormous piece of the pie.

With all the momentum behind the farm-to-table and local food movements, it may be surprising that it’s difficult for chefs to tap into local supply. Why is it such a challenge to bring fresh, local produce to diners?

Restaurants that care a lot about the quality, freshness, and source of their produce tend to have two options: they can hire someone to liaise with large-scale distributers to find and purchase the produce they need for their menus, or they can invest a lot of time and resources to build their own private network of trusted farm suppliers. This second option guarantees much fresher, high-quality produce than the first option, but the cost of building and maintaining this web of private suppliers is far too great for most restaurants.

But part of the answer also has to do with the “local” category. In any given region, some local crops and varieties are widely available for purchase in restaurants, supermarkets, green markets, and so on, while others are virtually absent from those spaces and unknown to most people who live in the region.

For example, in the Montreal region, I can easily find Quebec apples in any supermarket during the fall months, but the varieties are limited to just two or three. Yet, farmers in Quebec produce about 140 different varieties of apples! What this means is that, while many restaurants serve some local produce from time to time, a huge range of local agricultural products virtually never make it onto plates because chefs have little or no access to, or knowledge about them.

2012 was your first big growing season. Was there anything you learned in that first season that surprised you or will play a significant role in your work going forward?

The 2012 season has been a big learning experience! In fact, the goal of this season was just that: to learn as much as we could from an early test run so that we could iron out as many kinks as possible before rolling out on a larger scale. A lot of the lessons we learned (and are still learning!) have to do with software design, as that constitutes the heart of Provender’s activity.

What are your goals for the next phase?
Very simply, we’re aiming to grow our operations here in Montreal and in other regions in North America. We think we have an excellent model that both farmers and chefs appreciate. We’re ready to make the jump to the next level.

You’re known in the Storey world as one of the authors of The Healthy College Cookbook. Was it a straight line for you from cookbook author to Provender?
Haha! No, not a straight line at all. There have been few straight lines in my life so far!

Alex Nimetz, Emmy Starr, and I wrote The Healthy College Cookbook in between my second and third years at college. We wrote it as complete neophytes! In fact, that was one of the main selling points of the book — as inexperienced cooks, we understood exactly what our audience didn’t know!

Since then, I’ve gone on to study international development and public policy, worked for the government on labor market and learning policy, and done a host of other things far from the realm of food.

But something special definitely grew out of my brief but intense experience co-writing The Healthy College Cookbook, as it was there that I first learned to experiment with my own ingredients. From there sprouted my interest in making my own bread, yoghurt, jams, soufflés, curries, and on and on. I cook a lot for my family. It was also in writing the book that my eyes were opened to a whole world of food beyond my own plate, from the art and chemistry of making disparate foods sing together in a finished dish to the amazing abundance and diversity of foods grown in farms nearby, to the different growing, cooking, and eating practices found around the world. 

I hadn’t gone looking for jobs in food and agriculture, but when I met the founder of Provender at a start-up event here in Montreal, something really clicked. It felt like a happy marriage between my passion for food and my desire to help spark positive social change. 
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Find out more about Provender and their work by visiting their website and blog, or following them on Twitter and Facebook!

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