Efficient or Effective?

The U.S. food system is neither.

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Illustration depicting supply chain of milk from farm to pasteurization plant to store.
Is this really the best way for food to get from the field to your walk-in? / aurielaki © 123RF.com

FoodMaven is a Colorado-based outfit that rescues food lost in traditional distribution channels—perfectly good apples with a few unsightly spots, brats from a local sausage company that overestimated the demand for its cheddar-chile sausages last month, cuts of beef from that rancher on who raises the best product but can’t obtain reliable distribution—and sells it to restaurants and commercial kitchens across our state and in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. It strives to fill in a link in our country’s broken food supply chain. Some of its current local restaurant partners include the half-century old Mickey’s Top Sirloin, 32-year-old McCoys, and relative up-and-comer Ultreia. Here, FoodMaven CEO Ben Deda talks about whether the current system works—on any level.

Recently, I listened to a panel discussion with the CEOs of major U.S. food companies commenting on how the COVID-19 pandemic had impacted the food supply chain. They all extolled the efficiency of the U.S. food system, repeatedly citing the fact that the nation produces plentiful food at a very low price. 

We can’t call [our system] effective unless everyone has access to healthy food, industry workers can make a living wage, and there is little to no waste.

That got me thinking. Can a system in which about 40 percent of the food produced in the US. ends up in landfills really be considered efficient? According to Merriam-Webster, efficient means, “capable of producing the desired results, with little or no waste (of time or materials). By that definition, our food system clearly isn’t efficient. 

But could we argue that the U.S. food system is effective? Effective, as defined by Webster, is about “producing a decided, decisive, or desired effect.” But as an industry, we really haven’t defined what that desired effect should be. Is it to supply chips and sugary drinks to families that would be better off with fresh produce? Is it to keep prices low by suppressing wages and compromising on worker safety?  Is the food system effective when so much food goes to waste?

I’ve been thinking about the pillars of an effective food system, and it’s clear to me we can’t call it effective unless everyone has access to healthy food, industry workers can make a living wage, and there is little to no waste.

FoodMaven’s mission from the start has been to reduce food waste. We do so by harnessing technology to match up producers with restaurants, institutions, and other wholesale users of food. Our tech platform identifies markets for imperfect or oversupplied food (such as potatoes that end up as French fries) and finds buyers for locally produced food.

There are no easy answers, but the future clearly calls for creating an agile food system, one that utilizes technology to the fullest and is more nimble, flexible, and transparent.  We must be adaptable to cope with unexpected supply chain disruptions, such as the COVID-19 pandemic; we need to shorten shipping distances to conserve energy and reduce the use of fossil fuels; and we need to put more emphasis on the virtues of locally produces food. Lastly, we need to reduce or eliminate food waste.

Ultimately, we want the food system to be both efficient and effective. It’s something to work toward, but it is not unachievable. Getting there will take creativity, collaboration and resolve.

Ben Deda is the CEO of FoodMaven and oversees the operations of the company. Ben has held senior and executive leadership roles at Vertafore, Galvanize, FullContact, and TruStile in operations, sales, marketing, and support. Ben is also a co-founder and board member for Denver Startup Week, the largest free entrepreneurial event in North America. Ben has an MBA from the University of Denver and a BS of Mechanical Engineering from the University of Notre Dame.

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