What If Apple Changed The Food System?

RHFR 8-14 012One way to lead change is to bring in individuals with new perspectives and new ideas to help assess problems and propose solutions. Such an approach might be very worthwhile in addressing the many problems of the food system, particularly that of food deserts. My thoughts were impacted by a recent trip to the pristine lake country where I spent the bulk of my adolescence. While the beauty of the region remained, I was stunned to see that the town center — which I remembered as being very lively on weekend mornings — was essentially gone. Stores were closed, and little remained beyond a quick-mart/gas station and a pizza shop. The disparity between my two pictures of the town, some 35 years apart, was shocking.

The nearby grocery store that we frequented had been closed for years. The remaining grocery store of consequence was now several miles away. Prices for fresh produce at that store were far higher than in the large store (and even in the local farm market) where I shop at home — in some cases nearly double. This despite the fact that the rural store in question is located in a bountiful agricultural region. At the same time, I noted that one “staple” processed item was considerably less expensive than the price I typically paid at home. Pricing seemed backward. While driving home from that store, I passed a woman and her son selling fresh-grown produce at the end of their driveway like many others in the region. Sadly, the woman was obese, as was her pre-teen son, signaling that they likely were unable to access the healthy foods that they needed. I was struck by the fact that they were selling the very food items — fresh vegetables — that they should be eating (and which they grew themselves) in order to improve their health.

In a very short time window I came face to face with many problems of the current food system, especially in rural areas:

  • Lack of access to nutritious produce through quality retail stores
  • High prices of fresh produce forcing selection of less healthy items to those with limited income
  • Quick-marts offering an abundance of processed food
  • Poor nutrition leading to health problems such as obesity
  • Need for educational emphasis to promote healthy eating

There are a host of issues here (economic, health, educational) that require both short-term fixes and long-term planning and change. Solutions to these problems require creativity, collaboration, resources, a commitment to education, and new business models to bring about that change. No single person has all of the answers to these problems, but when rural individuals are selling the very food that they need to improve their nutritional intake and prevent long-term health problems, we all need to stop and think about how to change the system. Such change will require bringing smart, creative, collaborative people from multiple sectors and disciplines together to attack the problems of food deserts with national scale. Making the upfront investment in solutions will save the nation money in long-term health care costs.

While reflecting on this, I recalled a 2012 Wall Street Journal article from Arthur Herman entitled “What If Apple Designed an iFighter?” Herman’s point at the time was that the Pentagon was in desperate need of change involving a business-savvy approach to modernizing our national defense. He argued that several valuable lessons could be gleaned from the rapid modernization of our defense system during World War II, a time when the US rapidly transformed its military in size and sophistication while steadily lowering the costs of the weapons systems produced. Herman noted that this monumental effort was accomplished by following four simple business principles:

1. Recruiting the most productive and innovative companies and manufacturers
2. Keeping the loop between users and manufacturers tight (i.e. defense contractors viewed their ultimate customer as the pilots and sailors who took their products into battle)
3. Not aiming for perfection (i.e. innovating for today)
4. Saving dollars the way a producer would, not a customer (i.e. reduce costs through highly efficient supply chains and “smart” manufacturing processes)

Herman’s title implied that a group of smart, creative business people (like those at Apple or many other leading companies across the country) might do a better job of designing a new weapons system (like a new jet fighter) than the current system mired in bureaucracy, delayed deliveries, and cost overruns.

For some time I’ve been reflecting on Herman’s theme regarding the challenges of the food system — particularly with respect to food deserts and food insecurity, rising obesity rates, and insufficient education on health and wellness. Fixing such problems requires smart, creative, collaborative individuals and organizations driven by passion and a sense of extreme urgency to combat a major threat — much like that associated with the modernization of our defense system in World War II. Importantly, it also requires the national will to do so. That coalescing of talent, resources, commitment, and will enabled the modernization that led to victory for the Allies.  Rather than avoiding the challenge, shouldn’t we expect that a similar approach could solve the problems of our food system?

We can benefit from applying the lessons noted by Herman to the food system.  As a starting point, in seeking to address food deserts and food insecurity, we should:

  • Create national awareness of the need for urgent change
  • Marshal the national will to create that change
  • Recruit innovative individuals and organizations to address these problems through public-private partnerships
  • Create a tangible link between food retailers, health-care providers, and low income/food insecure populations
  • Think small and think big; aim for immediate impact which will provide lessons to shape long-term plans and system change
  • Provide a structure to unify these efforts with minimal bureaucracy
  • Leverage technology and distribution capability to increase access to high quality food to underserved populations
  • Provide incentives to retailers and entrepreneurs to create new durable business models that increase access to healthy food choices
  • Reduce food waste, and explore ways to support redirecting high-quality excess food to those in need

The main point: we don’t have to look far to see many of the problems in our food system which lead to serious health problems (and serious social and financial costs). They are right in front of us. We need to address these problems with urgency and a business-savvy focus, turning creative individuals from multiple disciplines loose with resources and purpose. A helpful selling point to stress — one that most individuals understand — is the idea that the cost of the short-term investment to increase access to healthy food at national scale will be more than offset by long-term savings in health care costs.  From a financial standpoint alone, this is a worthwhile effort.

We have incredibly talented individuals (many of them currently underutilized) and organizations who can take on aspects of this challenge.  It’s time to turn them loose.

In sum, applying Arthur Herman’s premise to the food system, the question for us to ask might now be: “What If Apple Changed The Food System?”

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