My parents, who both grew up in the depression, instilled two values in me: hard work, and thrift. While we never felt we wanted for much growing up, there was never a lot of money to spend either, something we were blissfully unaware of. One thing I remember is mom cooking healthy dinners every night, using fresh ingredients bought daily from the supermarket. She was a good bargain hunter, and knew how to stretch her food dollar. We’d splurge occasionally on a hamburger out at the local A&W (remember those?), washed down with a root beer float.

Thus, I was struck by a vignette early on in the film Food, Inc., where a working family of four stops by a fast food restaurant for a dollar meal. The mother explains that because they are so busy, she doesn’t really have time to cook, but she does want to make sure her children get a ‘good’ meal to start the day… She goes on to say that because they don’t have a lot of money, they have to look for bargain ways to feed their family. But then we find that the father is suffering from diabetes, for which he is spending $200 a month on prescription medicine…

In a nutshell, this is the dilemma. The movie, in the form of an expose, paints a rather bleak picture of the industrialization of our food supply over my lifetime, complete with references to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. All driven by the ever increasing need to reduce costs of production and distribution to supply a populace who either by training (me) or by economic necessity (the family), look for bargains in their food. While it is easy to blame (and many will) the corporations, I think this is too simplistic.

The film does point to a possible solution, Stonyfield Farms, founded by hippie Samuel Kaymen in 1983, who recruited another then-hippie, Gary Hirshberg to run the company.  Hirshberg is perhaps best known for cutting a deal with Wal-Mart, which launched an organic (see below) offensive in 2006 (Wal-Mart Eyes Organics) to supply the massive chain with organic yogurt. In other words, rather than exhorting people to change, Stonyfield Farms did what anyone who has taken Economics 101 learned on about the second day of class: provide a product the consumer wants to buy. This is not to say that the journey has been easy nor devoid of potholes (for some of the challenges Stonyfield Farms faces, read Bloomberg Businessweek’s 2006 article on The Organic Myth), something anyone in a responsible position in business knows. Yes, there are, of course detractors, but on the other hand, who outside the Chinese government but Wal-Mart has the possibility of single-handedly changing the structure of our food supply system?

I am further encouraged by two other examples, Whole Foods (publicly owned – here is Cramer’s Mad Money take on Top 4 food plays) and Trader Joe’s (privately held). We stopped in both today and both were packed. Now maybe it was because the heat (what a summer!) meant that there was little else to do outdoors. On the other hand, both chains are expanding, despite the fact that organic food is typically pricier than the regular industrial variety found in your average supermarket. Even my local Stop & Shop now has a complete aisle devoted to organics, as well as an increasing variety of organic fruits and vegetables (still no organic beef or chicken yet, though…and btw, before you buy ‘organic salmon,’ read this).

In other words, if the incentives are there, in this case in the form of buyers, companies will respond. They may face difficulties, as Stonyfield Farms is facing now. But the market works.


Note: the USDA organic label is pretty strict on what it can be applied to, a case where government may actually work.