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Mark Bittman

Sourcing Food Ethically Is A Huge Challenge For My Startup

Yeah, Purple Carrot’s meals are vegan—but the way we source our ingredients is a work in progress.

[Photo: Flickr user MONUSCO, Abel Kavanagh]

Four weeks ago, my vegan food delivery company Purple Carrot relaunched. I’m discovering the ups and the downs of startup life: While we are successfully shipping our meal kits in about two-thirds of the United States, we are also experiencing what I’m told are expected problems: website glitches, partner businesses that haven’t honored their commitments, not enough staff, and a general sense of hysteria to which I’m not immune (more on that in a future column).

One big puzzle right now, mission-wise, is deciding what we consider "good" food—and figuring out how to find it and get it to our customers. Generally, our meals have been well-assembled, well-handled, and well-received—but they aren’t yet close to what I want them to be. Our company’s simplest promise is to deliver vegan meals, and we’re doing that. But there are bigger promises we’re making; ultimately, we want to challenge the distribution networks that dominate how plant-based ingredients are sourced.

Probably something like 95% of the fruits and vegetables that are sold fresh rather than processed (I’m not talking about corn and soybeans) in the United States come through huge urban distribution centers. These may or may not be domestic (more than half of America’s fruits and vegetables come from abroad) and may or may not be organic.

In my judgment, the first issue is more important than the second; at least when something is grown here, we can determine a few facts about it, like which chemicals it was exposed to and how the people who tended it were treated. Although in theory the Department of Agriculture regulates growing practices even for those plants grown abroad, in practice that’s a forlorn hope. And neither the USDA nor any other agency makes any attempt to control labor practices outside of this country. The difference between a tomato grown in Florida (in way less-than-ideal conditions, but at least not in conditions that could be said to enslave workers) and those grown in Mexico or further south is an important difference to me.

Inside the company, I have struggled to determine how hard I should push on these kinds of choices. On the one hand, I don’t yet have enough data and feedback from our customers to make the business case for some of these decisions—but I also believe that if we prioritize our mission from the beginning, our customers will respond positively. What I do know, from the customers I’ve spoken to directly, is that they’re expecting a certain level of what we might call curation around our ingredients. Some assume our ingredients are organic (I’ll get to that in a second). Some assume they’re local; depending on how you define "local," this is kind of a silly expectation, since we’re shipping many of our boxes hundreds of miles.

Organic, for better or worse, is now a legal term, and the definition both accords with and counters the original spirit of what older organic farmers set out to do. Agro-ecological is a better term for a system that produces responsibly, sustainably, ethically produced food, a system that takes into account the well-being of farmworkers and soil (and animals, though that’s not relevant for Purple Carrot). In a draft of our company goals and standards, I wrote, "In general, we seek to use practices that will allow workers, consumers, soil, air, water, and the planet in general to thrive."

Very nice. But although agro-ecologically produced food is available to individual consumers and members of CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture networks, through which consumers contract directly with producing farmers), to hope to source it reliably on a commercial basis to our thousands of customers is currently futile: It simply isn’t available in the quantities we need in normal supply chains.To get to that place, we will need to constantly think six months or more likely a year ahead to determine seasonal recipes, project customer numbers and preferences, and discuss quantities we need way before we’re sure of them. This isn’t impossible—I’ve had informed discussions with farmers and distributors about this problem, but it’s going to take time.

What to do in the meantime, how to get closer to truly responsible sourcing as quickly as possible, is one of my main challenges right now. The first step is to get rid of the most easily avoided nefarious elements in our inventory. Though our ingredients might not all be organic, we’ll start by sourcing ingredients that are free of additives demonstrated to be harmful or questionable, like high-fructose corn syrup, trans fats, and artificial colors and flavors, We’re also nixing food containing genetically engineered substances; though the jury is still out on these, the most common plants grown with the technology have increased herbicide use without increasing yield; at best they’re useless, and at worst they’re harmful.

I believe our second step should be to rely exclusively, or nearly so, on domestically sourced ingredients, for those reasons I mentioned above. To say that we’re using food that’s "local" or even "seasonal" will have to wait. Under the best of circumstances, we may soon be able to source food that’s grown near our distribution centers, which are currently in Boston and Los Angeles. But although the recipes we’re shipping right now focus on what I’d call winter vegetables, we’re not going ask to Purple Carrot customers to eat exclusively purple carrots—or other root vegetables—week after week. Some accommodation has to be made, and by defining "seasonal" as those things traditionally grown throughout the United States in the winter, the palate becomes much broader, including brassicas like cauliflower and broccoli and chard and a variety of other leafy greens. What we do about the increasing supply of hothouse tomatoes—mostly pretty tasteless in my opinion, and quite expensive—is still a question. My personal preference is to use canned tomatoes eight months of the year.

Going domestic is a principled, if measured choice. It’s a step in the right direction. While federal, state, and local regulations about the use of pesticides and other chemicals (and water) and the treatment of workers (and soil, for that matter) are pathetic, they do exist and they are mostly observed in the United States. I do not know that the same can be said for food that comes from Honduras or China or the Philippines, for example.

So that, as it stands, is the three-part plan: Focus as much as possible on domestic food, and eliminate produce that has been treated in especially harmful ways and are easily avoided. That, combined with the fact that our food is plant-based to begin with, really puts our customers on a far more sustainable and ethical path than most others. Then, in the long term, work on sourcing food from agro-ecological farmers who care about their land and what they grow on it. Those are the people I want to partner with.

Related: How the Internet has Changed the Way We Eat

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