For the nation’s largest produce distributor, sustainability means more than just installing LED lights or recycling packaging.
In October 2012, PRO*ACT established Greener Fields Together, an industrywide collaboration of environmentally responsible parties including farmers, distributors, retailers and foodservice operators. They have come together to make steady, measurable improvements in sustainability and food safety practices through all levels of the produce supply chain.
“When we were planning this, we realized there was a really strong movement to go local, but local doesn’t always mean safe,” says Kathleen Phillips, PRO*ACT’s supply chain sustainability manager, noting that locally and sustainably grown produce is in high demand. “We want to make sure that when the food gets to the fork and on the plate that we’ve done everything to make that food safe.”
PRO*ACT President Max Yeater says the effort is the culmination of several months of planning. “We’ve made a serious investment in time and resources in Greener Fields Together,” he says. “We believe this will result in more sustainably grown, packaged and transported fresh produce coming to market, whether it is grown by a national producer or a regional or local farmer.
“This initiative is unique in the way it provides a level of assurance, through consistent third-party verification, that all green efforts promoted by us and our supply chain partners are truly sustainable and that our local produce has been grown, harvested and delivered using safe, sustainable practices,” Yeater adds. “We’re very excited to be able to launch this collaborative effort.”
Greener Fields Together is administered by PRO*ACT in partnership with a network of independently owned local distributors. Project partners include local and national farms, local distributors and other purveyors, and retail, restaurant and foodservice operators.
The program targets and measures “green” farming activities including energy use, waste and water management, pesticide/herbicide use, packaging and transportation. Partner farms are expected to demonstrate their commitment to good agricultural practices and apply food safety controls to their operations. PRO*ACT provides farms with educational tools and financial support needed to pass an annual audit, Phillips says.
“Our distribution partners have reached out to us and said they want to buy more local produce and support their local communities and farmers,” she adds. “We are working as a conduit with farmers to make their products safer so they can sell more. Our distributors pay for audits, meaning the farmer doesn’t have to pay out of pocket and gets new tools that can help them increase their bottom line.”
National produce farms are audited by SureHarvest, a leading agrifood sustainability technology, consulting and verification provider. PRO*ACT announced a partnership with the company in late 2012.
SureHarvest’s approach to evaluation and verification is built around “Five P’s:” – principles, processes, practices, performance and progress – and documents sustainability efforts at the farm, packing shed and processing levels. PRO*ACT ultimately hopes to have all its national farm suppliers become “5P Verified,” the company says.
National farms that have already been or are in the process of being verified include Taylor Farms, Grimmway Farms, Sunkist, NewStar Fresh Foods, Naturipe Farms and Mission Produce.
“PRO*ACT wanted to ensure that any and all claims about sustainability can be independently verified as part of the Greener Fields Together initiative and to establish benchmarks against which continuous sustainability improvements can be measured,” SureHarvest President Jeff Dlott says. “When farms sign on for verification, we create case studies applying the 5P’s to eight separate categories of sustainability: pest management, good employee practices, soil treatments, climate/energy, water, waste, packaging and community support. Our goal is to generate enough value for them through the verification process that they make the choice to do it sooner.”
Local farms participating in the program are audited by NSF International, an independent, non-profit organization.
A Long-term Commitment
Distributors participating in the Greener Fields Together program are committed to make improvements including using energy efficient lighting and refrigeration and recyclable tote bags and pallet wraps. Hospitality partners can also be a part of the initiative by implementing sustainability programs and displaying a Greener Fields Together emblem noting their commitment to the program.
Hospitality providers participating in the program include Delaware North Companies, one of the largest hospitality groups in the United States. PRO*ACT has served as Delaware North Companies’ primary produce supplier since 2009, and provides more than 425,000 cases of produce each year to the company. Delaware North operates sports stadiums, entertainment complexes, airports, national and state parks, casinos and resorts across the country.
“Delaware North and our clients are increasingly sourcing local produce to provide our guests with fresh, high-quality foods and seasonal cuisine,” says Michael Reinert, vice president of Delaware North’s Supply Management Services. “PRO*ACT’s Greener Fields Together program makes our operations more sustainable and ensures we are receiving produce from farms and produce houses that are being held to the highest sustainability and safety standards.”
The Greener Fields Together program reflects PRO*ACT’s personal commitment to sustainability and food safety. “As the trusted source for produce solutions for over 20 years, we find it essential that our business be an admirable steward of environmental resources,” the company says. “Without the long term productivity of agriculture our community based business cannot thrive; therefore, it is essential to examine our impact across our entire supply chain.”
The company takes what it calls a “seed to fork” approach to sustainability that educates and engages business partners and quantifies sustainability efforts. “In the world of sustainability there is no single definition, no right answers and no finish line,” the company says. “We recognize that sustainability is not static but ever-changing, and have taken a stance of continuous improvement.”
Each distributor in PRO*ACT’s network of distributors nationwide has a full-time food safety inspector and a backup on staff, and the company also has a food safety scientist on staff. PRO*ACT has the ability to track back bad produce shipments within three hours.
‘A One-Call Solution’
PRO*ACT formed in 1990, when six independent food distributors joined efforts in order to gain a competitive advantage through consolidated purchasing and collective marketing and networking efforts. Today, the company distributes produce to tens of thousands of foodservice customers from over 70 distribution centers in the United States and Canada. PRO*ACT has access to more than 3.5 million square feet of total warehouse space.
“PRO*ACT has evolved into America’s leading distributor of fresh produce to the foodservice industry and emerging fresh trade channels by providing them with the distinct benefit of streamlining the produce supply chain and offering significant cost-benefits and an easy, one-call solution to secure the freshest produce,” the company says.
Most of PRO*ACT’s distributors are under third or fourth-generation leadership, giving them years of experience in the industry. “PRO*ACT distributors are produce specialists with dedicated personnel working with the PRO*ACT management team on national and regional customer programs from source to plate,” the company adds. “Many PRO*ACT distributors have test kitchens, training centers and culinary experts on-staff for customers to utilize in support of growing their business.”
The company continues to invest in technology, food safety and specialty produce, giving it an edge on its competitors. “At PRO*ACT, we know what it’s about. It’s about delivering value, delivering control over product specifications and food costs, and delivering product through approved sources from third-party inspected facilities,” the company says. “It’s about quality people, delivering quality products on quality equipment; it’s about management information systems that track and report the performance of our services; and it’s about delivering pinpoint results.”