Can you talk a little bit about how you started 4P Foods? How did your introduction to sustainable business practice and your experiences seeing China’s systems (among other things) influence your business model and principles? My wife and I participated in a more traditional CSA of our own, which we loved, but at times the logistics were challenging (picking it up somewhere, weekly deliveries, commitment of 20+ weeks, and so on). That, coupled with some “ah-ha!” moments in my career at the time, and I was inspired to make a shift towards food systems work. I worked for a startup food hub for some time before launching 4P Foods, an experience that was invaluable in understanding how and why food moves through our local foodshed.
My work in China was not food related, but it was incredibly eye-opening. It was a way to very directly see what externalized costs look like. It was both saddening, to see the negative effects of global, consumption-based manufacturing, but also inspiring to realize that systems change can and will have a real impact beyond just our local communities.
Put another way, the inspiration for launching 4P Foods was both in an effort to make the traditional CSA model easier, while building on the ethical principles of sustainable, traceable, locally sourced food. At the same time, the hope was to create a business model that has a much bigger positive impact on our food system, and the myriad other systems it touches. We have a long way to go, but the hope is to be part of the mosaic of other wonderful businesses and organizations working tirelessly to create a more just and equitable food (and economic) system.
What do you think has been the most rewarding part of creating a viable environment for local farmers to come together and sell their products through 4P Foods? The unforeseen positive impacts. It’s wonderful to get feedback from our farmers, our members, and our partners – some of the stories we’ve heard, and some of the ways we at 4P Foods have grown personally and professionally has been incredible. It has been reaffirming that while this work is taxing, difficult, and stressful, it’s also wildly fulfilling.
If they are willing and able to move in that direction, and share our values and principles, we are willing to work with them to help that transition. Some of our farmers are certified organic. Others are not. For us, what’s most important is that we are transparent about our farms, and we build relationships with our partners based on a vision we all share, and then work over time to continually get better in our business and farming practices. In short, it’s a lot of good old fashioned relationship building through handshakes, conversations, and basic principles of a sustainable food system that we all agree upon.
What has been the most surprising part of your company’s evolution? Perhaps the most surprising thing about the evolution is how 4P Foods has taken on a life of its own. I mean that in a good way. The feedback from our community members, our farm partners, and others continues to help evolve what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. It’s a wonderful phenomenon because it feels like we’re co-creating a business with the people we’re trying to impact. I don’t think we expected that going into this, but it has been a very powerful tool in growing the business.
How do you feel that your interest in being a part of a smaller local community of food production has influenced your business practices? Do you hope to expand beyond your current status?I feel like a better question is almost, “How didn’t it influence our business practices?” Our entire business model is built on the idea of being a vehicle to help connect people with their local foodshed. It permeates everything we do.
Yes, we’re always hoping to expand. We’ll be continuing to grow our impact here in the greater DC area in the near future. Then, when the timing makes sense, we plan to expand to other geographic areas up and down the East Coast, working with farming communities in each of those areas that we grow into. Our model is not necessarily one that is “scalable” but rather “replicable” in other cities. We hope to do exactly that.
Our brand promise to our members is this: We know that you know the food system is broken in one way or another. Whether you look at it as a climate issue, an animal or human rights issue, a socioeconomic issue, a political issue, or some combination. We also know that you are busy doing what you do in life to truly attack these issues in a huge way. Join us, join the 4P Foods community, because together, we can fight that fight with you. As a group, we can and we will fight to make a more just and equitable food system of tomorrow.
It’s going to be a long battle, but it took us several decades to get into this mess, it might take us that long to get out of it. Thankfully, there are many incredible people here in DC and around the world that are doing incredibly powerful food justice work. I’m inspired by these heroines and heroes and hope that we can help support them simply by building the voice and force of 4P Foods.
Are there any major changes in the food industry that you believe we will be occurring in the coming years? It depends how many years we’re talking. In the near term, I think the demand for transparent and regional food supply chains will continue to grow. The local and regional food industry topped $12B in sales in 2014, growing at a rate of 9% per year. All projections expect that rate to increase even further. I think this will help to drive a resuregence of small and mid-size farming communities.
If we’re looking decades out, it gets intense. We’ll need more diversified, smaller, and localized food systems in order to create redundancy which creates resiliency in order to prep and prepare for a warmer planet. Global supply chains based on food production concentrated in singular regions is not going to be sustainable in the face of droughts, desertification, rising sea levels, and more. I hope that the growing demand for transparent and ethical food creates the systems we’ll need to survive the bigger changes that lie in the decades ahead.
As the demand for sustainable food options continues to grow, especially in places like DC, what are some of your goals for 4P Foods in the near future? We’re hoping to continue doing what we’re doing, only bigger and better. We’re buying a lot of great food from a lot of great farmers and delivering it to a lot of great people… and that’s great. However, I think we can do more to make this food accessible to everyone. In the near future, we are looking at creative partnerships and business models to make it so the food our farmers produce can be distributed in all neighborhoods in and around DC. Right now, we do donations and contributions to local food banks and food relief partners, but it’s not until businesses like ours integrate food equity deeply into their business models that we can truly move the needle on food access issues. The food our farmers produce should be a right, not a privilege. Our goal is to help make that possible.
Which of Michael Pollan’s books would you recommend most?The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It’s an approachable starting point into the complexity of the food system. Be careful though, once you start down the rabbit hole, the deeper you’ll want to go. Perhaps that’s the beauty of having food be ones life’s work.
Photo talent courtesy of Amber Breitenberg photography.