Middlemen can play a big part in promoting sustainability in the food system, said Richard Schneiders, recently retired chief executive officer of Houston-based Sysco Corporation.

Schneiders spoke at the Feb. 18 U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Outlook Forum, making a case that Sysco and other middle market operators in the supply chain can play important roles even though they are largely invisible to the consumer.

“I’d like to make the pitch that supply chains must be an important component to the sustainable food system,” he said.

Schneiders said sustainability does not always mean nearby growers always have the smallest carbon footprint. He cited an example where salad greens from a farmers’ market in New York averaged 10 miles per case of product for New York buyers, compared with just 1.47 miles per case for product delivered to New York from Salinas. With a higher volume in truck shipments from the West Coast compared to smaller deliveries to New York farmers’ markets.

Small growers who supply those markets serve an important need, but he said commercial production beyond that is required.

“Not everyone can afford to pay $4.50 a pound for Santa Fe Farmers Market tomatoes, and conservatively it would take three to five million of those small farmers to feed the U.S,” he said.

Sysco is working to integrate mid-sized fruit and vegetable producers into its delivery system, Schneiders said.
“One of the key learnings is that no farmer on his or her own produces enough products for an economically feasible pick-up,” he said.

“We all have to sit down together, big and small, local and foreign, grower and distributor and customer, in a spirit of cooperation,” he said.

Sysco’s system involves a collection point where one grower’s produce can be combined with a neighbor’s product.

“The total quantity is now the scale that it makes economic sense for a Sysco tractor-trailer to stop and pick it up,” he said.

He said the supply chain must have a complete picture of a product’s expenses to make smart decisions.

“We must use tools like life cycle assessment or whole systems analysis to understand the net benefits of our actions,” he said, complimenting the work of Wal-Mart’s foray into development of a sustainable index label.

“I think there should be more of that,” he said. “It would make it easier for all of us to understand the implications of what we’re buying.”

Schneiders said the debate should not be about big versus small, or imported against local. Rather, the supply chain must determine what is the best scale for a particular product and should take into account the entire list of social, environmental, and economic variables.

“We all have to sit down together, big and small, local and foreign, grower and distributor and customer, in a spirit of cooperation,” he said.