Pictured co-owners Bu Nygrens, Mary Jane Evans and Karen Salinger
Beginning in the early 1970’s, Veritable Vegetables (VV) became part of a movement that sought to bring low-cost, nutritious food to neighborhood co-ops and community storefronts. These collectives, called The People’s Food System, extended throughout the greater San Francisco Bay Area, and provided a large-scale alternative to the existing corporate food system.
Through the years, VV has been an integral part of change in the sustainable food system movement by stimulating an increased demand for fresh, organic fruits and vegetables.
OPN Connect: You two have been delivering organic since 1974, what was the organic produce market like when you began?
Karen: The natural foods industry emerged in San Francisco in the neighborhood co-ops. We realized we had to figure out where there was a market beyond those co-ops.
Everyone was learning and trying to help each other along the way. We were figuring out how the produce should be packed, what’s the expectation of what it should look like? We had cherry tomatoes being delivered in burlap bags and lettuce packed in cardboard boxes; and nothing was hydro-cooled, nothing was iced. That’s part of what gave organic produce the bad rap.
Bu: It was a very different scene. There were only a handful of small growers scattered across the west coast. There were no farmers markets, no organic regulations or standard practices. Organic farmers couldn’t get bank loans because the banks didn’t think they would be successful. But there were highly motivated growers who had a big vision and were seeking alternatives to conventional Ag.
Many post-harvest and handling practices had not yet been adopted by organic producers. Bud Capurro and Sons in Moss Landing was the first packer-shipper willing to hydro-cool organic lettuce and broccoli. Once those practices were adopted we had a really great lettuce and broccoli deal.
OPN Connect: You have witnessed enormous growth in the sector. What were some of the innovations you undertook to help drive this progress?
Bu: From the very beginning we were committed to source identification with the farm label- so people could identify the farms and where their food came from, who grew it and how they grew it.
We participated in the development of certification standards to influence policy state-wide and the national standards
We made an effort to educate our farmers how to get their product to market in good shape. We were a distributor but also a conduit of information helping our growers to be successful.
Another innovation we are proud of was our early commitment to ethical business practices, which was different than the typical wholesaler who buys low and sells high. We were dedicated to the “value supply chain” where our farmers will be here next year; we could grow the market and spread the gospel of organic.
OPN Connect: Tell us about your relationship with your producers. How do you focus on the farm?
Bu: We do production planning with our farmers and we support growers even if we can’t buy from them by sharing market information. We have a reputation of honesty & fairness, we aren’t a “hard receiver” and we often work product from rejected loads.
We are diligent about sending our buyers to visit the farms, to see the operations and share information and best practices. In fact we have a farm visit program for our entire staff, so our warehouse and office workers can understand why we are committed to organic agriculture.
Karen: Our customers expect to find grower names on our price list and it’s helped to distinguish us from our competitors. This helps drive home our grower commitment with our customers.
Something we did three or four years when the local movement gained traction was to provide miles or distance from our warehouse on our price list. Our customers now have a better sense of the local and regional food production.
Every week we highlight a product and the grower on our price list because we want to bring the story of our growers to our customers. We do a weekly update on what’s coming in and what’s going out- where the opportunities are. It’s a lot of information management and people are hungry for it.
OPN Connect: What is the culture and values at Veritable Vegetable? How does this manifest in your workplace?
Karen: We define the culture here by honoring our employees, by welcoming diversity in our staff and hiring practices. We bring people in above the living wage in SF and we hold the 5/1 ratio in highest compensation to lowest.
Bu: We hold quarterly state of the business staff meetings that include industry trends. We are trying to build a community and not just provide a workplace, to make it meaningful and educational for our employees.
Karen: We hold true to our core values and operate with them on a day to day basis. Everything we do passes through that filter before we make a decision.
We divert 99% of our waste from landfill, we have train our staff to understand what can be recycled and reused. Our unsaleable food goes to our first to our staff meal programs, then hunger relief organizations, next local zoos and finally is composted. Even the microbes get to eat!
OPN Connect: What’s new and fresh in the organic produce sector that excites you?
Bu: I am really pleased about the current interest in reducing food waste. The ugly produce initiative is exciting. There is an opportunity for education about fresh food and nutrition and addressing chronic disease by regarding food as medicine.
The developments focusing on heirloom and heritage varieties, people now want flavor is an excellent trend in the right direction. We are now seeing domestic fair trade programs and social justice get traction in the marketplace.
OPN Connect: What are some of the challenges you face in the organic wholesale sector and how are you adapting to meet those challenges?
Karen: The most challenging thing is that people are shopping in different ways. The retail sector is changing quickly; people are buying on-line or prepared meals like grab and go. From CSA’s to farmers markets millennials have changed the focus on food. Amazon buying Whole Foods will change the landscape even more.
Bu: In order to compete we have to figure out how to differentiate ourselves and we have so far by educating stakeholders on social justice, food waste, environmental justice, encouraging young farmers to farm. There are a lot of things we need to do within the community to continue to raise the bar.