A Provender Conference Attendee’s Summary of his Experience

November 5th 2019

I just got back from an educational and inspiring conference put on by Provender Alliance (PA), a non-profit trade organization that serves natural food businesses. A decade ago, I was on the PA steering committee, and I am pleased to announce I’m back in service of this great organization. I will begin a two-year term as the newest PA board member starting in January 2020. 

PA caters to businesses (manufacturers, distributors, and retailers) that practice humane treatment of workers/farmers and responsible environmental standards. Also, they put on a stellar event featuring great food throughout the conference and sponsors who provide plenty of snacks and samples. Here is some of what I did at Provender 2019 ‘Collaborate! Counter the Culture’:

On Wednesday, I went to an all-day intensive training with a Conscious Leadership coach. It was a smidge woo-woo (for me) but also had some interesting points. For one exercise, we would verbalize our complaints about someone while standing on bases that said victim, villain, or hero. 

This exercise was to reveal “below the line” thinking, and then ask yourself if you are practicing responses based on resentment vs. appreciate, gossip vs. speak directly, conceal vs. candor, “I’m right” vs. curiosity, victim-hood vs. 100% responsibility, etc.  

We chose an issue as a group and stood on the words describing how we were feeling about a particular subject. Out of five suggestions, the topic that got overwhelmingly more votes was that of the corporate takeover of the natural foods industry. It was affirming to see so many members in our sector wanting to see positive change as much as I do. 

The four steps of the conscious leadership self-assessment tool are:

1. Where am I?

2. Can I accept myself where I am?

3. Am I willing to shift?

4. If so, how will I (Measurable action step)?

On Thursday morning, we heard a compelling keynote speech by Eric Holt-Jimenez called “Food, Farm, and Climate Justice.” He believes that a world free of hunger is possible if farmers and communities take back control of the food systems now dominated by transnational agri-food industries. His research and writing focus on issues such as food justice, farm justice, agri-ecology, and food sovereignty. He said that family and small scale farms could thrive if transnational agribusinesses were held to the same kind of standards for water usage, land allocation, etc.

The tables are tipped toward many companies that are simultaneously doing nefarious practices in other parts of the world. For instance, Monsanto/Bayer wants to own the seeds of the world, and Nestle wants to control the waters of the world. Corporate interests based on profit alone have effectively co-opted the natural foods movement as a whole. 

Still, I left feeling hopeful about the possibility of changing the policies that affect our region and giving a fighting chance to the independent retailers and co-ops, small size distribution companies, wholesalers/manufacturers, and farmers. 

The next workshop was one that I helped present. It was about coming up with plastic reduction measures and launching a retail program called Plastic Free by 2025. Lisa Spicka, Associate Director of the Sustainable Food Trade Association, facilitated the workshop, while Melissa Elkins, Sustainability Coordinator from the Bellingham Food Co-op, and I assisted. 

Rianna from Ashland Food Co-op put together a great slideshow, which I got to present, showcasing the excellent ways the Ashland Co-op is reducing landfill waste. As convenient as plastics are, we need to figure out how to move away from “throw-away” materials or find alternatives.

There is a new certification called Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC), which companies like Dr. Bronner’s and Herb Pharm are pioneering. The certification focuses on three pillars: soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness. 

This one certification exceeds the standards of 15 other certifications used in the industry. USDA Organic continues to change and evolve. There is a possibility of including farming methods like hydroponics within the definition of organic, so standards which the ROC uphold are increasingly important. 

Although there were many great workshops (including one by Courtney Alvarado called The Millennial Manager), one of the presentations that stood out to me was a keynote speech by a Portland writer named Jonathan Kaufman. He is the author of “Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat,” which was named by the New Yorker as one of the best books of 2018. It was fascinating to hear about how pioneers like Francis Moore Lappe, who greatly influenced my family with her book “Diet for a Small Planet” have made such a vital impact on natural foods.

One book review sums it up this way:

“From the mystical rock-and-roll cult known as the Source Family and its legendary vegetarian restaurant in Hollywood to the Diggers’ brown bread in the Summer of Love to the rise of the co-op and the origins of the organic food craze, Kauffman reveals how today’s whole-foods staples—including sprouts, tofu, yogurt, brown rice, and whole-grain bread—were introduced and eventually became part of our diets. From coast to coast, through Oregon, Texas, Tennessee, Minnesota, Michigan, Massachusetts, and Vermont, Kauffman tracks hippie food’s journey from niche oddity to a cuisine that hit every corner of this country.”

Overall, this conference was a blast, and I look forward to learning a lot and gaining understanding so I can make a difference in this business of natural foods. People and stores like ours can take reclaim our role as pioneers, renewing our commitment to people and planet, and steering this movement in a new direction that places integrity and heart above corporate domination and profit.