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Local Food Systems Insights from the Front Lines: It's About the People!

Sebastian Naskarkis learned more about the ins and outs of produce quality inspections than he ever dreamed.  Sebastian is a first year MBA student and NC Growing Together Research Fellow who presented in my Local Foods class yesterday, and shared many of the insights he learned while working in a large food distribution center in Winston-Salem.  Sebastian would get up to start work at 3 AM, working until noon on the loading dock, alongside the quality inspectors who had been doing this work for over 30 years.  Along the way, he learned a number of important lessons about the challenges of selling local produce in a large retail distribution environment.

First, packaging is an issue.  Many industrial producers package their product, which in turn can influence an inspector to “trust” the product more than product that arrives in a crate

Second, product codes can often cause problems and confusion.  If the distributor receives a shipment that is supposed to be all medium lemons, but in fact there are some small medium lemons, the produce has to be relabeled by hand to avoid under charging or overcharging the customer, which is unacceptable.  Quality control is about figuring out what constitute defects, shelf life, decay, and labels as produce comes in – and it is not a perfect science.

One of the most important insights was the need to think about people in the local food systems, not just the equipment and technology.  To change the system, we need to connect with the individuals in that system, who are the ones who actually do the work of quality control.  When a shipment gets a pass, it goes through an “OK to SLOT” sticker.  But when it fails, there is an individual in the facility who wears two hats, with the second hat being the North Carolina Department of Agriculture hat.  Here is where it gets tricky…

Why?  Consider the following. Sebastian noted that ” If I am a producer and have contracted with the distributor, and it fails the QC inspection, but passes the state or federal QC inspection, then the distributor legally has to accept my product!  It is legally considered good enough quality enough to sell, so the distributor is contractually bound to that product.  The problem is – if you are a vendor and you have passed NCDA’s QC inspection, and the distributor is contractually obligated to buy your produce – what kind of dynamic does that produce between buyer and seller?”

Another important cog in the wheel is the driver who brings the produce in.  The driver is contracted by the producer, and how that driver interacts with the quality inspection team will likely play some role in the likelihood that the produce will be accepted.  Truck drivers are a critical cog in the food supply chain, and vendors want a driver who will have a good relationship with QC.  A good driver will not have to wait for an inspection, because they arrive on time.  Inspectors know that a favorite driver will generally not allow poor quality produce onto their truck!  If something is wrong with the shipment, the driver will get instantaneous feedback on that shipment, and next time he will make sure it doesn’t look like that.

QC inspectors are not easily accessible.  You can’t get them on the phone, and they work long crazy hours.  So having someone who is an extension of your supply chain, like the driver, who has intimate access to QC feedback is a critical component of the food supply chain. And that is how producers learn what the buyer really wants, and what they need to do to make sure their local produce will sell.  Local food producers need to begin thinking about the relational capital in the supply chain, and how they can drive this dynamic in the future.