The Cost of Choice

We (and our producers) get asked a lot to make exceptions. Can I have the box delivered only once every two weeks? Can I have the box with less potatoes? Can I have not have the box for a few weeks when I go on vacation? Can I have the box the way I want it? The answer is NO and we would like to explain why.

We understand why members want to have choice and we acknowledge that it is a reasonable request to make. But having said that I am going to ask you, the member, to step outside of yourself and put yourself in a producer’s shoes (I promise to come back to you).

Being a Producer

Imagine you are a vegetable producer. When you are established and well-organized (which can take a few years!) you have a full work load. Your days are constantly full caring for the plants and weeds and water, caring for your workers, harvesting food and delivering it to the city.

Already in planning their seeding and planting producers have their members in mind. Knowing that they are serving a fixed number of members they can plan their planting with more precision and yield better results. For the producer there is no more guessing what will sell and what will not sell in the market. They are no longer thinking about growing this and that plant, but about assembling a complete and useful box to feed  you and your family. As a member of a box food is grown for you. Allowing everyone to order what they want would bring back uncertainty and waste.

Now lets zoom in on the harvesting, packing and delivering. If, for example, you have 30 identical boxes to pack, you settle into an efficient rhythm. You know how many sacks you need to harvest from each vegetable. You know how to layout out boxes or bags. You know what goes on the top and what goes on the bottom. You get into a packing routine that is simple and flowing. You pack 30 identical boxes into the car, drive to the city and at every stop pull one box out (it doesn’t matter which because they are all the same) and hand it over to the member.

Now lets introduce choice. Before harvesting, the producer needs to review each and every vegetable on the list and see how much should be harvested based on what people want this week (it can change every week). Then, when packing each box, the producer needs to make sure that every member gets what they ordered. The packages probably needs to be marked with names. Then, when packing the car the producer needs to consider his route through the city and pack the boxes in such a way that first boxes to be delivered are pack last (so that they can be taken out of the car without having to move a lot of other boxes).

You can see that the work gets much more complicated, with much more potential for mistakes. Introducing choice requires more work. How much is that work worth? Would you be willing to pay more for all that work? Would you be willing to pay more for choice? How much more? If we, as a community, are not willing and able to pay more but still making such demands of our producers, then essentially we are asking the producer to do more for us. This is NOT possible.

something is cracking under acumulated pressure

We have seen producers stress under these pressures and we are seeing it happening now as I write these words. This is why we strive for simplicity, consistency and continuity. We do not see any other practical way to make available to you a constant stream of quality, local and affordable food.

Industrial Food Standards

The standards of choice, variety, comfort and price we have come to expect around food have been set by a system of industrial food production, distribution and marketing. That is what you get when you go to the big supermarket chains which are taking over our cities (and gradually villages). You get parking, shopping carts, long opening hours and long aisles of shelves stocked with an overwhelming variety of low quality food produced far away by slave labor, with little consideration for anything else but profit.

These industrial standards are already so deeply embedded in our consciousness that we take them for granted. But we shouldn’t … in fact we cannot take them for granted. If we do we are essentially agreeing to the industrial food standards and will end up depending on them to exclusively control our food supply (because no small, local producer can meet these standards).

When working on Cutia Taranului I try to focus on constructive actions and avoiding giving attention and energy to the faults of the industrial food system. Creating better alternatives seems more useful and is more pleasant than examining what is currently broken. However I have been holding on to two articles for a few months, both in English and both related to giant food retailers in the USA. These stories give us a glimpse of what the future may hold for us if we too continue blindly down the path of industrial food production.

The first article What Happened When Walmart Left describes a recurring, systemic and intentional pattern where a Walmart opens up and brings jobs to a community and becomes a communal center (where people meet and connect). It creates a deep dependency between it and the community and then consumes the community and leaves.

“They developed a system that just made us worse off, and then they took even that away from us.”

The second article How Kirkland Signature Became One of Costco’s Biggest Success Stories describes how Costco uses its dominant retail position to corner producers (themselves huge business, nothing like a Cutia Taranului producer) and force them to either drive prices down or cut off business ties – this of course being a „success story” because in the end all that matters is profitability:

„Kirkland Signature, Costco’s store brand, is challenging manufacturers hoping to earn or retain a coveted spot at the warehouse retailer … Costco often introduces a new Kirkland product when its buyers or executives believe a brand isn’t selling at the lowest possible price … Before developing a Kirkland product, Costco usually gives a brand-name supplier the chance to make the Kirkland version, too, say company executives.”

Being a Member

So, coming back to you (as I promised), the member. It’s not that we don’t want to give you choice, we do, but we don’t think its possible, not now. If a box has too much for you and we, for example, ask you to find someone to share it with, it places a responsibility and effort on you. Can you feel it? When you ask the producer to bring you less food you are redirecting that responsibility and effort onto the producer. Can you feel that? Now multiply that many times over … because like you many other members want to make exceptions. Every time you, and others do that, it accumulates and you contribute more pressure to an already pressured system … until something cracks and breaks.

We talk to the producers a lot about this. Unfortunately, it seems that most producers will agree to take on the additional pressure and will do so with a (false) smile. They do so for many reasons. Some are embarrassed to say anything. Some are afraid to lose you as a member. Whatever the reason, the end result of you not taking responsibility for some of the effort, leaves it on their shoulders. And they carry resentment, and they stress & worry, and work hard, too hard, and they get sick … until something breaks. When that happens you, together with all the other members of that box, will stop receiving fresh, locally produced food delivered to your door.

Maybe one day we as a society will become more aware of and learn to value what it takes to produce good food. Maybe one day we will come to realize that there is no such thing as cheap food. Maybe one day we will realize that the prices we’ve become accustomed to are a lie because they don’t include hidden subsidies and do not represent the true cost of poor nutrition (such as the costs of health-care and medicine that are required to complement it). Maybe one day we will reconnect with the precious role food has in our lives. Maybe we will learn to better allocate resources towards good, local, sustainable food production. Maybe we will be able to use those resources to introduce more comfort, availability and choice. But that is not where we are now.

For now we are two facilitators and a few families (producers) doing our best to offer you an alternative in less than favorable conditions. We ask you to acknowledge and embrace the fact that you have a role in this beyond handing money over to your producer, when you receive the box. Your role is to figure out how to comfortably inhabit your place in a relationship built on simplicity, consistency and continuity. If you make an effort we will have a relationship, if not it will disintegrate.

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