Ten Questions with Tom Chan, CEO of General Produce

From foodtank.com by Kate Reed
Ten Questions with Tom Chan, CEO of General Produce

Food Tank, in partnership with the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau, Farm-to-Fork Program, and University of California, Davis, is excited to announce the 1st annual Farm Tank Conference at the Hyatt Regency Sacramento on September 22–23, 2016. This two-day event will feature more than 35 different speakers from the food and agriculture field. Researchers, farmers, chefs, policymakers, government officials, and students will come together for interactive panels.

The event will feature interactive panels moderated by top food journalists, networking, and delicious food, followed by a day of hands-on activities and opportunities for attendees.

Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Tom Chan, CEO of General Produce, who will be speaking at the summit.

Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to get involved in food and agriculture?

Tom Chan (TC): You could say that I was born into it, since my grandfather started General Produce back in 1933. I spent my youth working weekends and summers doing various manual labor jobs around the company—unloading watermelons, bagging oranges, sorting produce, sweeping up the warehouse, that kind of thing. The hum of warehouse activity was always the backdrop—listening to my dad and uncles negotiating a fair price for fresh picked produce, trucks being unloaded by hand, watermelons being tossed off 40-foot trailer beds of hay into wooden bins. My narrative always had fresh produce woven in, even when we sat down together at the family dinner table. The foods prepared by my mother (green beans, artichokes, salads) were grown close to our family business. After college graduation, I enjoyed a brief career in the corporate food industry. My father encouraged me to work outside of the family business before my eventual return to the company. When the personal choice was made to return to the family business 37 years ago, my understanding of the food industry and the state of agriculture was just at the starting point of my career in food distribution.      

FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?

TC: The food system responds to the needs or demands of the consumer. If consumers are educated and see value in the healthful, local, fresh foods, I think the food system will have to meet those requirements. Access to fresh foods should not be a privilege for the elite, it is a human right. Supporting the communities around us—small growers, independent grocers, small restaurants, and schools—in providing California-grown products is a good start at fixing the foods system.   

FT: What innovations in agriculture and the food system are you most excited about?

CT: I’m most excited about how technology is being used. On all levels, IT is a tool we use for real-time delivery information, cold chain data, ordering, inventory management, produce traceability, communications, etc.

On the consumer level, education and information sharing how to access wholesome foods and how to use them is available. The grower level utilizes technology to be more efficient with water and other resources, among other things.

FT: Can you share a story about a food hero that inspired you?

CT: As a parent myself, I was inspired by my own parents and upbringing. Coming from a traditional baby boomer experience, my father worked seven days a week at the family business while my mother was a homemaker and “woman in charge” of our household. Their partnership was committed to the ritual of family dinners. No matter what pressing business demanded attention, my father found it important to return each night for dinner with me, my sisters, and my mother. This sacred family meal time included nourishment for the belly as well as the soul. Conversations about school, activities, and family matters revolved around plates of fresh, wholesome foods. Many of these were grown by local family farmers with whom my father did business. Often times, after dinner, my father needed to return to work, but we always had family meal time.

With their example, it was important for me as a parent to continue that tradition. As my two girls were growing up, I took great pleasure each day in laying out a nutritious, healthy breakfast for them. As roles expanded for my generation, it was acceptable for me to do most of the family meal shopping and preparation. The “family dinner hour” may look a bit different from my own experience growing up, but it is still one of my favorite ways to spend time with my immediate family. “Breaking bread” has been an inspiration and gift in business. Many good relationships are formed over both casual and formal lunches and dinners with vendor partners, customers, and employees.   

FT: What drives you every day to fight for the bettering of our food system?

CT: Our kids and the future generations. We need to provide them with the education and tools to live a long, healthy life. Food is the fuel of life. Healthy lifestyle choices begin in the home at childhood. We need to show our kids what a healthy lifestyle entails—food, exercise, and a positive attitude. We also need to try to leave our kids with a world that gives them a chance to thrive and enjoy a high quality of life.

We service areas primarily in Northern California. Many of them are in very remote and isolated geographical regions. From Susanville to Plymouth, we have trucks rolling to foodservice and retailers with fresh produce and other fresh products that may otherwise be difficult for them to access.

FT: What’s the biggest problem within the food system our parents and grandparents didn’t have to deal with?

CT: Probably the easy access and demand for fast, cheap, processed, and convenient foods. Humans are disconnected to where their food is derived. There is a certain lack of appreciation for the natural resources and the human capital that goes into producing real foods. Our parents and grandparents had the respect for food as they typically grew it, prepared it, or had some consciousness about what it took to grow a tomato or squash or bake a loaf of bread.

My mother and grandmother prepared a special vegetarian dish called “Jai” for the Chinese New Year. It was made with lots of fresh vegetables, various dried mushrooms, and dried bean curd. It took a day to prepare and was served with loving care for the holiday celebration. This lost art of making traditional ethnic delicacies is fading not just with the Chinese, but other third-generation immigrants. Instead, an American diet is largely defined by the center aisles of the grocery stores and the proliferation of fast food chains.   

FT: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system?

CT: Establishing a national “food policy” that would manage the American agriculture and food system as a whole. This would lay the foundation for a food system in which healthful choices are accessible to all and in which it becomes possible to nourish ourselves without exploiting other people or the environment. Some of the tenants would include:

  • All Americans have access to healthful food.
  • Farm policies are designed to support our public health and environmental objectives.
  • Our food supply is free of toxic bacteria, chemicals, and drugs.
  • Production and marketing of our food are done transparently.
  • The food industry pays a fair wage to those it employs.
  • Food marketing sets children up for healthful lives by instilling in them a habit of eating real food.
  • The carbon footprint of our food system is reduced.

FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?

CT: The practice of reducing waste. Ask if we really need something before a purchase. Whether it’s using every part of the food products we purchase, taking only what we can or will consume, or choosing to reduce our carbon footprint in small ways. Consciously select items that are offered with high regard for local and sustainable.  

FT: What’s one issue within the food system you’d like to see completely solved for the next generation?

CT: Childhood obesity. With a keen appreciation for being active as a life skill and making healthy food choices accessible for all, we continue to promote increased produce consumption. We need education and empowerment for youth through school lunch programs, life skills for young parents, and making fast, junk foods less attractive in marketing.   

Known facts:

Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. Most children currently do not meet minimum intake requirements for fruits and vegetables as specified by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Children and adolescents who are obese are likely to be obese as adults, increasing their risk of health problems such as heart disease, type-2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer, and osteoarthritis

FT: What agricultural issue would you like for the next president of the United States to immediately address?

CT: Implementation of a practical, cost-effective food safety system. There are no more important issues for the produce industry today than the safety of our food. The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law by President Obama on January 4, 2011. It aims to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus of federal regulators from responding to contamination to preventing it. Work now needs continued federal support to implement processes and policies across all segments of the produce industry.


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Sponsors for this year's Food Tank Summit in Sacramento include: Almond Board of California, Annie’s Inc., Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, Blue Apron, Clif Bar & Company, Driscoll's, Fair Trade USA, Farmer’s Fridge, Food and Environment Reporting Network, Inter Press Service (IPS), Niman Ranch, Organic Valley, and VegFund. More to be announced soon.

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