Local Orbit CEO Erika Block is giving a Change Talk as part of the Business Doing It Right track at this year’s Change Food Festival in New York. This interview with Brittany Barton originally appeared on the Change Food Fest Blog.
How do you define local food? And what is its role in a sustainable food system?
Local is an ethic, more than a geographic constraint. It’s transparent – you know who produced it and where it came from.
It comes from the closest possible distance – which can vary, depending on where you live and the products you’re buying. Think about a bulls-eye: aim for the center but make choices as the target radiates out.
Local means the story stays with the food and consumers know it – the story of the farm, where and how they produce the food, how they treat their workers.
The supply chain provides equitable value to all partners. If it’s not a direct sale, the producer keeps a fair share of the final dollar.
How can local food meet the demand of a growing population?
I think the connection between food production and population growth is artificial. We have more than enough food. Much of it is wasted. We have a distribution and communication problem – not a food problem.
Every day we hear stories of food being tilled into fields un-harvested because producers can’t access a viable market. There are seconds that aren’t being sold.
At the same time, many of the institutions we work with say they can’t get enough of what they need from local suppliers.
There’s a lack of communication across the supply chain. Buyers and suppliers are working in silos. Local food can meet growing demand with effective supply and demand planning and data-driven collaboration within local and regional food economies.
What motivated you to launch Local Orbit and how is it impacting our food economy?
My background is in theatre. I was a playwright, director and producer for 12 years prior to Local Orbit. I co-founded and ran a non-profit arts organization, produced cross-sector events in the US, Great Britain and South Africa. I co-created, directed and produced 15 plays and led the renovation of a vacant building in Detroit into a theater, gallery and bar (where we worked with vendors to source local food for events).
I was inspired to create Local Orbit through a series of interviews I conducted for a project on the History of Eating. I spent time with people in fields, barns, warehouses, processing facilities, delivery trucks, kitchens, offices, cafeterias and restaurants. I talked to policy makers, business owners, food writers and nutritionists. And as I saw what was happening, I identified the need for a platform that could support the new and evolving businesses and innovators who are transforming our food system.
My work as a director and producer was about bringing together really talented people and creating space that enabled them to do their best work. Connect people and let them create together. That’s how magic happens in the rehearsal studio, which turns into great art.
And it’s what I focus on as I build a company. My job as a CEO is to bring motivated, talented people to Local Orbit, and create an environment for them to do their best work, so they can create great tools and services, which in turn enable our customers to do their best work as they build their businesses.
Local Orbit’s platform provides tools, data and access to new trading partners, which drive growth in local food economies.
Currently, we support 12,000 buyers and suppliers across 90 local marketplaces in North America. From 2014-15 we saw 560% growth in sales to local suppliers through our platform. We’re on track to see at 350% growth from for 2016.
For Local Orbit, what types of transportation systems do you have in place between food suppliers and institutions?
To be clear – we don’t get involved with delivery or distribution. We provide a communications and transaction infrastructure, and we work with institutions, distributors and producers to optimize their regional transportation networks.
What do you think is the greatest challenge that local food producers face?
There are many – but I’ll focus on those who are established enough to be making a basic living at it already:
Understanding appropriate scale for their operations, based on both personal and business goals – and how to achieve it.
This challenge touches on production, distribution, management, economics, geography – and collaboration. It relates to networks….
Who or what inspires you most in the good food movement right now?
It’s exciting to work in a space where there’s so much demand. And I love the innovation and evolution that’s happening as people try to figure out how to meet this demand—which really means changing the food industry, whether through new production methods and technologies, or by creating transparent, new supply chains.
I really enjoy working with the scrappy, independent entrepreneurs who use Local Orbit’s platform or attend our workshops. They aren’t afraid to test and make mistakes and adapt. They’re people who get stuff done, no matter what the obstacles. They solve problems every week, they have ambitious long-term goals, but they break it down into incremental steps.
I’m seeing a lot of evolution, as well – as the food hubs, producers and institutions we work with move from start-up to “second stage” challenges (a lot like Local Orbit, in fact). It’s gone from a movement to an emergent industry – and that’s important. People are finding economic viability.
What is one thing an average person can do to help change the food system?
When you cook: Use ingredients that come from a farmer/rancher/fisher you know, as often as possible, and you will change the food system. Whether that’s directly from the producer, or through a grocery story or other outlet.
When you don’t cook: Purchase foods prepared from a food maker you know, or eat a restaurant where the chef/servers can tell you where the ingredients come from.
I really believe in the power of story to help us make decisions. Knowing the who and how and where. Change happens when we’re informed and engaged.
The Change Food Fest “Growing the Good Food Movement” will take place in New York City on November 12 and 13, 2016. We will explore and celebrate change happening in the food system. Rather than simply talk about problems, we will actively look at solutions that are leading us to the sustainable food system we wish to see. Our focus will be on both real and visionary change and will include an exploration into seafood, plant based vs meat diets, possible impacts of new businesses and investment money coming into the food space – and much more. Join us – #CFFest2016! You can purchase a ticket or host a viewing party of the live webcast in your local community.