Food hub director talks sustainable farming

While hundreds of students crammed into Emerson Dining Hall last Thursday, only a few made their way to the Faculty Dining Room to hear about the importance of sustainable farming.

Laura Edwards-Orr, associate director of Red Tomato, addressed just under two dozen students about the company’s radical business model, which does not include any warehouses or delivery trucks, to help farmers distribute fresh, local produce as ethically as possible.

“It’s a totally new kind of business,” she said. “It’s mostly responsive to community problems. So this kind of farmer needs this type of market, or this kind of market needs this type of product.”

Based in Plainville, MA, Red Tomato grossed over $3.7 million last year from grocery stores, produce distributors, neighborhood restaurants, schools and colleges across the Northeast. The company describes itself as one of many food hubs that help distribute and market locally sourced farm products.

“If it can be grown in New England, and it’s in season, you should be able to buy it or eat it where you’re shopping or eating,” Edwards-Orr said.

For globalized farms, produce must be selected before it is ripe so that the food can survive trips to stores that are thousands of miles away.  Local farms, however, are so close to stores that produce can be picked when it is ready to eat.

“We ship them in products that are harvested in the morning, packed and cooled in the afternoon, and shipped into the grocery store the next day,” Edwards-Orr said. “Twenty-four hours from harvest to store shelf.”

So why is the globalized business model still successful? According to Edwards-Orr, marketers do an excellent job at manipulating images to make their globalized farms appear more sustainable. She emphasized that lively commercials with saturated colors and peppy music highlight a marketing scheme that is convincing consumers to make uninformed decisions about the foods they eat.

“Some of the discussion happens at the community level,” said Edwards-Orr. “But we need to do a better job trying to figure out how to tell a story in a way that wins people’s hearts and minds.”

Without the budget of larger operations, Red Tomato turned to tote bags to make their voices heard. The company’s packaging comes complete with Red Tomato’s story, the farmer’s story and an explanation of the eco program. Edwards-Orr said that this and other mini-advertising campaigns seem to have had an effect, as consumers now value local produce even more than organic produce.

Wheaton’s dining halls serve their share of locally sourced food, purchasing from twenty-four different farms in the Northeast. The Loft is the most sustainable of the bunch, using ingredients that are all produced within a 150-mile radius of Wheaton.