Acting Locally: Using Purchasing Power to Source Local Food

Jun 19, 2015 1:00 PM ET

Sophie Waskow Rifkin, Associate, Advisory Services, BSR

Companies have long used their purchasing power to drive demand for and lower the cost of sustainable goods. For instance, Walmart has taken advantage of its size to bring organic food to a wider customer audience, and partnerships between corporations and nonprofits have spurred bulk purchases of renewable energy.

When it comes to sourcing local food for internal operations, however, companies face a significant gap.

Companies source food indirectly, through external contractors usually hired to manage their internal food service. While they may not have direct purchasing control over the products brought into their offices, they can work with these contractors, like any supplier, to indicate preferences and set standards for food purchasing. Local food sourcing can help companies enhance the sustainability of their operations, reducing food miles, enhancing transparency by providing a direct connection to producers, and allowing buyers to invest in their local food economies.

But barriers exist when connecting local producers and buyers. Take seafood, for example. The United States is a major seafood producer, but 86 percent of the fish consumed domestically is imported, and a third of domestic catch is exported. 

Tackling food sourcing is no easy task, in part because so many players have a role in bringing food to the table. In the case of the U.S. seafood industry, there are several factors that make domestic consumption more difficult. First, it’s difficult for local buyers to purchase local fish given the long supply chain of seafood. After traveling miles from where it was caught, often a fish is consolidated and aggregated at central markets and then is trucked back out, sometimes arriving at a table only a few miles from its source. Second, bulk-food production often requires exacting standards on cut and size to make production efficient. These standards can be challenging for smaller fishermen, given the limitations of smaller production facilities. Third, the ocean cannot produce what we demand of it. Customers, buyers, and restaurants need to understand the seasonality of seafood, just like any food product, and tailor menus to what their local fishermen can catch and provide.

There are opportunities, however, for companies to work with their food-service providers to encourage greater sourcing of local food. Click here to read the full article.