Correction: About 13-14 minutes in, Melody mis-speaks the year of the checkoff referendum. It will be 2016, not 2017.
Today we give you an interview with Melody Meyer, Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations for United Natural Foods Incorporated (or UNFI), which is the largest distributor of natural and organic foods and more. Melody is also the Executive Director for the UNFI Foundation, which funds new programs and research that supports the development of healthy, organic foods, the next generation of organic farmers, and overall, a healthy planet. (How she fills both vice president and executive director roles, we’ll never know!)
We were excited to talk to this busy woman about the Foundation side of her work and learn about some exciting new developments that will benefit organic farmers and our planet today and into the future.
Interview with Melody Meyer
December 21, 2015
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, Rootstock listeners. Today it’s my great pleasure to be introducing Melody Meyer to you, who has actually been in the organic industry as long as I have, since 1976, when she began working at a natural foods co-op in Iowa. She is currently the vice president of policy and industry relations for United Natural Foods Incorporated, UNFI. You’re going to learn more about them. And she’s the executive director for the UNFI Foundation. Melody serves on the board of directors for the Organic Trade Association; she is a board trustee for The Organic Center; and she’s served over eight years on the Organic Advisory Committee for the California Department of Food and Ag. There’s lots and lots more things that Melody’s been involved in, and I won’t go into all of them. But it’s a great honor to introduce Melody to you. And welcome, Melody, to Rootstock Radio.
MELODY MEYER: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here. And it’s true, I’ve been in the industry since 1976.
TM: And you started out in a co-op. So did I, and you know, I work for a cooperative now. So that’s exciting. But I think maybe some of our listeners don’t even know who UNFI is, and it would be super if you could just say a little bit about who you work for, the United Natural Foods Incorporated.
MM: Yeah, we—UNFI is the leading independent national distributor of natural and organic specialty foods. We service over 65,000 products to 30,000 customers through several distribution operations, be it UNFI, Trudeau Distributing, Tony’s Fine Foods, Albert’s Organics, Select Nutrition, and Honest Green. And really the principles of organic agriculture are embedded in every part of UNFI’s culture and heritage. Our founders recognized the benefits that organic farming brings to human health, to the environment, and we really remain committed to the belief that everyone should have access to clean, nutritious, and delicious food, grown without toxic pesticides, herbicides, and nitrate-laden fertilizers.
TM: Hear, hear!
MM: We really think the well-being of future generations and the fertility of our soils and the health of our waters are linked with the advancement of organic acreage on our planet. So we’re very committed to expanding organics.
TM: That is just who UNFI is. And for those of you who do shop in the co-ops, in the natural food stores, or in the natural foods aisles of the large chains, it is very likely that UNFI has brought some of that food there, and especially if it’s organic. So it’s a tremendous service that UNFI provides us, and I’m just so grateful for it. And it’s so exciting also that they have a foundation. Tell us a little bit, Melody, about what are the kinds of philanthropic givings that UNFI is involved in.
MM: Well, we started the Foundation as a way to formalize our giving back to the industry. And we really wanted to focus on organic and organic production. So our priorities include increasing organic food and fiber production, providing research and science to develop organic farming practices. Research and science is sorely underfunded by the federal government, so we try to fund as much science and research as we can. And we want to protect the biodiversity of our seed supply and the stewardship of genetic resources for organic seeds specifically. Once again, there aren’t enough dollars going into breeding traditional and organic seeds.
We want to foster the next generation of organic farmers. The average farmer is 58-plus years of age, I believe, here in the United States. And we believe there’s a real opportunity for new and young people to get into farming, and organic farming is a pathway to prosperity. So we really want to foster that next generation. And through that we fund organizations that teach organic farming practices, be it conferences, be it classrooms. We have a fantastic program, a Future Organic Farmers Grant Fund. So we’re really focused on innovative, new programs that support the development of healthy organic foods and food practices, really for the health of our planet.
TM: That is quite the list you’ve got there. What a broad scope of giving that you do. And I see that you’re all focused on organic, and I’m very, very thrilled and excited about that. Melody, I’m thinking to myself, do you get up in the morning and pinch yourself that you’ve got such a great job with UNFI Foundation?
MM: I love my job, and it’s been quite the organic development that I’ve been through. Starting, really, in the co-op in Iowa, and coming to California, working at retail out here, meeting many of the growers, and having an affinity for the growers and producers, purchasing [unclear—sounds like “kini” so it could be kiwi or zucchini] and oranges and lettuce from the central coast, and realizing that the health of my business was directly related to the health of the farmer. And I really developed an affinity for farming and, quite frankly, the farmers that are involved.
TM: Well, I can see that you moved from retail and then you moved into the more working directly with growers. But I’m just curious, Melody, when you started getting into the organic industry in that wonderful co-op in Iowa that, believe it or not, I’ve been to—just a wonderful little store, actually. It’s a big store now, but then it was a little store, wasn’t it?
MM: Yes, it was a movement. It was a movement then.
TM: Yeah, it sure was!
MM: And we did everything from, you know, running the register to weighing out herbs or cutting the cheese.
TM: Yeah, or cleaning the bathrooms, huh?
MM: Exactly. Exactly.
TM: And then, tell me, in 1976, what is it that made you want to be part of the organic food movement?
MM: I guess I can go back to my roots. I had some wonderful grandparents that were raised pre–industrial ag. And we grew everything in our backyard. We didn’t have a lawn—we had a garden and we had fruit trees and we had grapes, and we even raised animal protein back there. And we lived in a small town, but you used your backyard, the land, to grow your food. And you built up the soil through fish and different amendments and compost. I mean, they were the original organic producers because that’s how you raised your food in Iowa.
So meeting a culture and a movement that represented something that also was linked to my past and my heritage really spoke to me. And I realized that it wasn’t healthy to put poisons in your food and in your soil and in your water, and then eat those poisons as well.
TM: Wow, how lucky, Melody, that you had this in your family, someone who really modeled it for you. We all know that in World War II is when we started taking the kinds of things we developed to kill people in the war and then started putting it on our food. You know, that was in 1976—you were pretty young then, weren’t you?
MM: I was pretty young, but my grandparents were born in the previous century, in the 1890s. So they went through a lot, and they didn’t have chemical ag back then. They were really my first teachers in this organic journey.
TM: So lucky. And so then you started working for the natural foods co-op. What made you want to go off and do your own business?
MM: Because I could, and I knew how, and I really wanted to link the farmers up with retailers and distributors all over the country. And I knew the farmers, and I set up a business model that was a win-win. Many brokers buy for as low as they can and then sell for as high as they can. I negotiated a fair price between the farmers and the receiver, be it the retailer or the distributor. And the farmer then charged the receiver that price that I negotiated. I received a quarter for a box, for every box that I moved. So it was all about volume. And I built a small business with six employees on quarters. Everybody succeeded in that equation.
And that, I think, is the secret to success in business, is to make sure, whether it’s, if you’re dealing with farmers or retailers or transportation people, whoever it is in the chain, everybody has to be successful, and then you’re successful.
TM: You know, Melody, I just was reading a piece that talked about how many women are in leadership in big corporations, and that in the retail food industry 35 percent of the leaders are women, which certainly is a little bit lower than we want it to be, but nevertheless it’s getting up there. I bet in 1976 it was pretty unusual, wasn’t it, for a woman to have a lot of drive and start their own business. And were there many women in the produce business then?
MM: No, not at all. It was a different culture. It was a rough-and-tumble culture. Some of the traditional produce markets that are out there are very male oriented. So I was one of the first women business owners or business people in that arena. And since I was in organic, I was a woman and in organic so it was a double oddity.
But I have to say that, back to UNFI, they’ve given me so much opportunity to grow and to develop and take ideas and run with them. For instance, when I was in charge of purchasing at Albert’s Organics, I went out and I made connections and relationships with all of our producers, but we didn’t really know who grew our bananas, let’s say. And bananas were one of our largest categories, and we didn’t know who those growers were. So I went down to Ecuador and Peru and, with the help of Fair Trade USA, met small producers, small landholders, that otherwise wouldn’t be able to export in the international market, helped them to form a co-op, gave them a fair trade premium, and together these hundred or so producers came together and could export, for the first time ever, to the U.S. And we had some bumps in the road, but pretty soon they got really good at it. And from one container a week, they now do, I think, twenty-two, not only to the U.S. but it’s into Europe.
And every year I would go back, and that Fair Trade premium would get applied to running water in their homes, or education for their children, or reforestation for their environment so they didn’t live in a monoculture world. And it was really super rewarding to be part of that fair trade movement.
And then UNFI put me in charge of the Foundation, and I knew nothing about setting up nonprofits, and that’s been a real learning curve. And it’s been super enjoyable, and we’ve been able to help the cause for organic. So I’ve been really fortunate, as a woman, to work for a place like UNFI that lets me run with ideas and believes in me, and along the way I learn a lot as well.
TM: Well, it’s clear that you are a pioneer and leader, Melody, and have been since you were young, and you just keep right on going. And right now, I know that you’re on the board of the Organic Trade Association—in fact, it’s how Melody and I know each other; we were on this board together for a while—as well as The Organic Center. And I just can’t help but ask, as an Organic Trade Association board member, what do you think might be our biggest issue facing us in 2016?
MM: I think the biggest issue/opportunity is how do we fund ourselves as a community, as an industry? And one of these answers to that could be through the Organic Check-Off. And there will be a referendum this coming year, in 2017, and the industry will vote to decide whether everybody pays a little bit into a fund that can be used for educating the consumer about what is organic; that money can be used for research and science, and more importantly, matching funds. The USDA puts out money every in the Farm Bill for research and science, but it requires matching funds, many times. This is a vehicle to have those matching funds available for organic science and research, to help our farmers produce more and really do better in this time of climate change. They need that science and research.
It can also be used for information to help new farmers and beginning farmers transition into organic. Right now the USDA has only two organic specialists in the country, for the whole country.
TM: Wow, not many!
MM: And we need more, and this is a vehicle to fund more of those as well. So one of our biggest issues/opportunities is, can the industry decide to fund the Organic Check-Off and be a united community?
TM: Well, really, thank you so much for bringing that up. Maybe some of our listeners don’t know that every commodity that we have in the food sphere has a commodity, like the pork producers and the beef producers, the egg producers, the soy producers, the corn producers. There’s just Check-Offs for everything. And it’s how, for example, that great milk mustache campaign that we all are familiar with, that is all Check-Off money as well. And how that works is that just a small amount of money actually—five cents, ten cents, fifteen cents—is then taken out of the checks of both farmers and, in this case, it would be producers and plants, production facilities, and so on, but not the retail side. And they contribute their small amount; it adds up and can actually end up being many millions of dollars that are then used to educate, for research, and promotion of that particular category.
So organic right now doesn’t have any of those kinds of funds coming in. And in fact, one of the reasons, Melody, I’m so happy you brought that up is there’s a few companies out there that are actually funding so much of the organic industry, and I think probably UNFI is one of them; certainly Organic Valley is another one. And it puts UNFI as a great pioneer leader here, but it sure would be great to have everyone participate. What do you think are the obstacles in getting that passed in the organic industry?
MM: I think there’s a lot of fear out there, especially in the producer community, the small producer community, that other check-offs haven’t gone as they should. But I believe, as individuals and as a culture, we do things differently—we always have. Back to my roots in 1976: we were a different breed back then, and we still are. And we can do this right and we can be integrous with that money, and we can make sure that it helps all organic producers and all organic manufacturers. I really hope someday we can open up the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal and see a full-page ad on what is organic and “It’s the incredible edible organic,” or “Organic: it’s what’s for dinner,” or some byline like that so that people everywhere can understand what organic really means.
TM: Doesn’t the actual check-off the way that… I know that it’s just in a draft and still going through a lot of different comments and so on. But doesn’t it exempt the smaller producers some?
MM: Yes, it does, actually. And they can… It exempts producers under a net of $250,000, unless they want to be part of the governance, and then they can opt in and pay under $100 to be part of it, a tax that, $100 a year. And then they could run for the board and sit on the board and decide how the money is spent. So some producers may want to opt, some small producers may want to opt in and pay in so that they can be part of governance.
TM: Well, I know that it’s still going through a lot of refinements in that there’s certainly… Those of you who are more interested in it can contact the Organic Trade Association, and probably even go onto their website, which I believe is ota.com, and find a lot of information about it. And it’s not too late to give input into it. And certainly, I know that Melody, as you can tell, is a big supporter of it, and I’m going to have to join her in that too. It’s something that we really, really need in order to really help organic grow up from… We’re a young adult now, but boy, do we ever need to mature fast, because it’s just such a great production practice for so many aspects of the earth and, of course, our health.
You know, I know that you’re also a board trustee for The Organic Center, which is very, very focused on our research. And I just wondered if you had a thought about what kind of research you think something like the Check-Off could potentially help out with. There are so many areas, I know, that we need research on, but is there anything specific that you’d like to call out that could be something that Check-Off dollars could support?
MM: Well, the Organic Center is really committed to conducting research and science, and actually also putting that science and research together so people can understand it, to effect policy change, to effect consumer awareness. So they sponsor science and research, and they also amalgamate science and research, be it the effects of nitrogen pollution, to soil health, to human health. And what they do could actually be augmented by the Organic Check-Off in that they could call for different proposals and research ideas, and then some of the funding could come from the Check-Off. So The Organic Center can become a more robust organization and conduct even more science and research to benefit the organic community through this Check-Off program if it comes to realization.
And the beauty with The Organic Center, now they’re partnered with the Organic Trade Association, is any of their findings can then be communicated quite broadly through the channels that the Organic Trade Association has set up. So it’s a really nice relationship that they have. It’s complementary. The Organic Center conducts and commissions the science, and then the Organic Trade Association communicates it. Because you can do all the science and research in the world, but if you don’t let the farmers know and you don’t let the consumers know what the findings are and really get it out, it’s kind of worthless, you know. I mean, science and research can just sit there in a paper. And for anybody listening to go to the Organic Center website is a great resource for what’s happening in the news and how The Organic Center is responding to things in the news and what new science and research is out there.
TM: Thank you so much for that, Melody, because it is so important for us to have some really strong science behind what we’re doing in the production world with organic. And we are very, very much trying to say we need what we call bulletproof messages to the consumer so that they can truly get a good sense of what organic benefits really are.
But I wanted to back up or, you might say, go up a little bit higher. I know that you’ve been an advisor for FAO of the United Nations, which has been a fantastic resource for so many things, and a volunteer with a group that I’d never even heard of: IESC—the International Executive Service Corps. It’s a volunteer group. I’m very interested in that. This idea of volunteerism is just getting more and more popular and very, very needed in so many ways, I think. Tell me about your volunteerism.
MM: Yes, thank you. You know, my wanderlust kind of was created when I went to Ecuador and Peru and met with those banana growers. And International Executive Service Corps actually approached me, I think it was three years ago, to go to Tunisia and help olive oil producers enter the international market. And my specialty isn’t in olive oil, but I realized that helping small producers to achieve prosperity can invigorate the economy in any developing country. And organic was a focus for that, so organic producers in Tunisia.
And it’s very rewarding to be able to communicate some of the expertise that I’ve been lucky enough to glean over the years, to organic producers in developing countries that really, quite frankly, need it. So it was a really rewarding experience. They were able to, in the end, export organic olive oil into the U.S.
The next opportunity I have to do some volunteering will be in the Dominican Republic in the next year. I’ll be working with small fruit and vegetable growers, once again organic, to help them organize themselves. I will suggest that they unify into a co-op so that they can be bigger and stronger. And oftentimes it’s women doing the agricultural activities and—
TM: This is in Tunisia?
MM: This is in Tunisia and now Dominican Republic.
TM: Yeah, in fact, I think, all over the world.
MM: Yes. If you’re able to do volunteer work in any way, be it domestic or international, it is the most rewarding thing. And to know that you’ve given back and helped somebody be stronger in their life, and helped their community to be more sustainable, is one of life’s greatest rewards. And I’ve made a lot of friends all over the world as a result, and I stay in touch with a lot of those people. And I feel that I have a broader community as a result.
TM: That is very, very sweet. I have a very huge respect for those who volunteer, and I do know that it is an extremely rewarding experience for so many of the people. You said you’re going to the Dominican Republic—and Haiti too? Or just the DR?
MM: Just the DR. They focus on different groups and areas, and this one is in the Dominican Republic. They get federal funding and private funding, and then they go out and look for experts in certain areas.
TM: And what are the products that you might be helping to create organic markets for? This is in the U.S., isn’t it? The markets would be in the U.S. and Europe?
MM: Yes, yes. And I would imagine there’s bananas and mangoes, and I would imagine that there’s some vegetable growing like peppers and cucumbers, and maybe some hothouse growing as well.
TM: That would probably be a very excellent boon to those people in the DR. What other countries are there out there that, if people, that are looking for volunteers? You were saying Egypt was one. Are there places in Asia and other places that are looking for volunteers?
TM: And is it all by invitation?
MM: No, you can go to the IESC.org and look at what missions are out there, and you can apply. You put in a resume, and put yourself out there, and let them know which area you’re interested in. They’re also doing a lot of activity in China, which is also something I am interested in as well. But there’s so much to do here at home! So I can’t volunteer everywhere.
TM: I’m seeing this quote from you, “Everything we do starts at the farm.” And I think that that’s something to remember, or starts with the seeds and starts with the soil, but starts on the farm. So it really, truly is a pleasure to be talking with you today, Melody.
MM: I would just add that we’re all part of that Good Food Movement by every meal that we eat, every choice that we make with food. We can be part of food democracy by making the right choices and being informed.
TM: And, listeners, this is Melody Meyer, who is a pioneer and leader in the organic movement and industry. And what a pleasure to talk with you today, Melody.
MM: Thank you, Theresa. Pleasure to be here.
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