Outgrowth of People’s Food System, Veritable Vegetable Broadens Horizons for Organic Farmers
August 27, 2013 | Noelle Swan
With roots in San Francisco’s storied People’s Food System, Veritable Vegetable has helped organic growers distribute their produce for nearly 40 years. While farmer’s markets and food co-ops are recent phenomena in some parts of the country, northern Californians started seeking an alternative to supermarkets and agricultural food giants in the 1970s. The People’s Food System was a network of collectives in the San Francisco Bay Area that sought to connect local food producers to neighborhood co-ops and community markets. In 1974, some members established the Veritable Vegetable Collective, which focused solely on produce distribution. Over the years, Veritable Vegetable has evolved from a worker-run collective into a for-profit company that serves growers and markets in parts of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and Hawaii.
Today, Veritable Vegetable delivers organic fruits and vegetables from more than 200 different growers primarily throughout California and the Southwest to more than 700 different community stores, co-ops, restaurants, schools, and institutions. Over the years, similar businesses that exclusively distribute organic produce have entered the market, however the large conventional food distributors have proven the most formidable competition to Veritable Vegetable. “These big distributors really changed the dynamic of the market. Organic produce isn’t really where they are making their money, so the way they price and move organics is different from how we do. They can buy in different volume than we can because they are huge. Then can undersell us pricewise,” Daria Colner, Marketing Communications Director of Veritable Vegetable said. That model suits supermarkets well, however Veritable Vegetable has always focused on smaller markets that focus more specifically on organic food and relies heavily on its reputation for treating farmers fairly. “Our focus is on serving farmers. Our goal is to support small and midsized, independent farmers in order to make the food system viable,” explained Daria Colner.
Because of that reputation, the company has not had to actively seek out growers; “We’ve been fortunate that growers come to us,” Colner said. The company doesn’t have any minimum purchasing requirements and welcomes small growers into the fold. Veritable Vegetable purchasers work closely with farmers, taking the time to learn the needs of each individual operation. Growers need to package and label their own products, maintain their cold chain, and maintain consistent sizing and grading, but purchasers can provide guidance in these areas.
While Veritable Vegetable is a for-profit company, it’s driven by a set of core values that impact sustainability more broadly, Colner said. This means not just providing the community with sustainable food, but providing both farmers and employees with fair and reasonable compensation. The Veritable Vegetable website boasts entry-level salaries that start at twice California’s minimum wage, an extensive benefits package, and a commitment to hiring women for positions that are traditionally staffed by men.
Environmental sustainability is equally as important to the company. As distributors, the vehicle fleet is just as vital a component to the business as the produce. Veritable Vegetable operates 23 trucks that hit the road 365 days a year. In 2012 alone, the fleet travelled over 1.7 million miles. The company strives to maximize fuel efficiency by incorporating six hybrid trucks into the fleet, by phasing out manual transmissions, and by using properly inflated, low profile tires. Increasingly, the company has been looking to backload, or rent trailer space to other companies on the return trip back to the warehouse, or along various routes. Trailer refrigeration brings added fuel costs. Ten of the company’s 17 refrigerated trailers utilize hybrid cooling systems and all are insulated with trailer skirts. These efforts earned Veritable Vegetable recognition from Fleet Owner as the 2012 Green Fleet of the Year.
In the company’s 42,000 square feet of warehouse space in San Francisco, workers are specially trained to learn the labels, products, and unique needs of each grower and customer. 560 rooftop solar panels help offset the building’s energy consumption and 99 percent of waste is diverted from landfills through recycling, reuse, and composting practices. State-of-the-art coolers with temperature controls and recycled insulation help to reduce energy consumption. In the interest of transparency and maintaining community connections, the company offers warehouse tours for youth groups and community organizations. “We are proud of our ability to conduct our business while being focused on the environment,” Colner said.