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Tim Crosby: Regional Food Expert, X Prize Catalyst…?

Posted by Tim Crosby

tim-crosby-regional-food-expert-x-prize-catalyst....jpgWe made a deal: Carolyn could have two school lunches a week.  We would pack homemade meals for the other days. While not thrilled by the school’s options, we encouraged Carolyn (then in the first grade) to ‘make smart choices’ on her own.

That Monday was particularly frantic.  We were running late.  School bag contents lay strewn about, and we still hadn’t nailed down the lunch schedule.  Scrambling eggs with one hand, I looked over the school’s menu, and asked Carolyn what she wanted to eat.

No answer.  I looked over my shoulder and saw tears in Carolyn’s eyes.  “Don’t make me eat that food at school, Daddy.”

Time out. I knew some things were bad, but that bad?

Since I was halfway through my MBA program at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, I spent the next year focused on the business of local food.  I used assignments in marketing, strategy, operations, finance and planning to build on these ideas. Of particular interest were distribution issues: how to get good local, organic, fair trade food into schools.

For the next ten years I dedicated the vast majority of my philanthropic and business work toBallardFamersMarket_bylibraryman_flickr_R50.jpg building out the logistics, policy, and financing of the regional food system. I’ve been lucky, since the ‘local food’ movement exploded in basically the same timeframe: community supported agriculture (CSA), online markets, food policy councils, farmers markets that accept food stamps, the City of Seattle declaring 2010 the Year or Urban Agriculture, rooftop gardens, and a National Fresh Food Financing Initiative.

We can no longer call this just a movement. It is an emerging industry at the intersection of food, farms, environment, health, and economic development.  It’s growing quickly, creating jobs, and increasing regional economic activity.

However, the issue of most interest to me still remains largely unsolved: how to consolidate regional food so we can cost effectively feed our low-income population. The decentralized nature of our regional food supply means that traditional business models (e.g. increasing volume from centralized manufacturing systems to drop prices) will not be adequate.

There are distribution efforts around the country, with two of the most innovative right here in our region. The first involves Rotary First Harvest, which matches up excess trucking with excess farm products to stock emergency food providers. The frustrating part is that this work is focused on donated food and transportation, hardly the right solution for an emerging industry.  It’s also doesn’t help those people in the middle – those who are not eligible for food donations, but cannot easily afford locally produced food.

The second effort is led by the Puget Sound Food Network, which is testing the idea of wholesale markets as consolidation hubs. (Think farmers markets, but for wholesale buyers and sellers.) The first two markets were this past summer, and the report on this work should be coming soon. Whether these will address gaps in service to low-income communities is still unknown.

What we do know however, is that we need more bright minds working on this problematic opportunity. That’s why I’d like to kick off a conversation about an “X prize” for regional food distribution. We could pool funds, tap the skills and expertise of interested SVP partners, get different teams working on a solution, and award a cash prize for the best idea.

Incentive contests are proven as a cost effective means to an end. Last year McKinsey and Company released a report that encourages philanthropists to add prizes to their toolkit. As the authors point out: “Prizes attract diverse groups of experts, practitioners, and laypeople—regardless of formal credentials—to attempt to solve difficult problems, dramatically expanding the pool of potential solvers and lowering the cost of attempting or recognizing solutions.”

copy_of_automotive_x_prize_sm_photobyWiredMagazine.jpgThe XPrize Foundation has run some ambitious contests to commercialize space travel, map the human genome, and produce a 100 mpg car. Why not bring this model into our kitchens, and to an issue that affects every person, every day?

Paul and Sofia connected me with a number of partners who share my interests, and I would love to hear from others as well.  What do you think about this X prize idea? Do you have other ideas related to our regional food economy?

I plan to host a meeting January or February to discuss these kinds of ideas.  Feel free to email me directly if you are interested: timcrosby@comcast.net 

Tim Crosby (with his two daughters below) is an SVP partner who works on the logistics, policy, and financing of our regional food system. Tim is Director of Slow Money NW, coordinated the development of the Puget Sound Food Network, and helped coordinate the development of the Good Food Coalition that works on appropriate state level policies related to food.



One Comment:

  1. Sam Benowitz

    I am the owner of Raintree Nursery located in SW Washington state. We have supplied home gardeners and market gardeners with more than a million edible plants, fruit trees, berry plants etc over 43 years. I am now working towards retirement and would like to sell the business to an individual or group to carry on this important work. I would like to reach entrepenuers in our region who would like to earn a living doing important work and live in a beautiful rural area. I’m not sure how best to reach likely people.

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