Local Food Rises to the Occasion

As panicked shoppers empty grocery store shelves day after day, week after week… there’s good news coming out of this crisis.

Every farmer I’ve talked to over the last two weeks is experiencing the same thing we are here at Polyface… a run on inventory.

We’re seeing people who have never darkened the door of alternative food venues snatching up food. Some say they’ll never go back to the supermarket.

Our farm is having the best financial spring ever, despite losing our 50 restaurant clients.

Where’s the Food?

The reason for the current stampede to farmers who direct market primarily to a local clientele is that we’re the ones who have the food.

The famous Wendy’s commercial “Where’s the beef?” has a pandemic cousin: “Where’s the food?”

The restaurant/commercial kitchen trade is quite different from the retail (grocery store) trade. The two chains leading up to those two different customers require different links.

Processing protocols, insurance, labels and tracking codes, packaging, warehousing, distribution: Everything is different.

A truck that delivers to Kroger would never deliver to the back door of a restaurant.

With modern just-in-time inventory, yesteryear’s stockpiling no longer occurs in the retail trade. Everything is geared toward rapid turnover.

Because the two different chains of supply cannot switch between each other, when a shock occurs, like restaurants suddenly shutting down, that food cannot be easily salvaged and repurposed for grocery stores.

Steamship rounds of beef heading to a Marriott cannot suddenly be sent back to get recut into retail steaks headed to Kroger.

We had a glitch like this on our farm. For the first time in forever we ran out of 1-pound packages of ground beef. That’s a staple for our customers.

It was maddening because while folks were milling around lamenting, “There’s no ground beef,” we had 5,000 pounds in a freezer 10 feet away… but it was in 5-pound bags packaged for restaurants and commercial accounts.

(Of course, our more inventive customers went ahead and took the 5-pound packages and cooked them, freezing the leftovers for future use.)

Direct-market farmers like us don’t have global supply chains, so we do the old-fashioned thing and stockpile inventory for off-season and short-term hiccups.

So when supermarket inventories failed, people learned quickly where the goods were.

Although our inventory is now extremely low and we’re hand-to-mouth keeping up, our stockpile has served us well and many people have learned what resilient food supplies look like.

The country was not low on food; it simply couldn’t switch supply chains fast enough to accommodate the sudden shift from commercial/restaurants to retail.

Rising to the Occasion

In response to the panic over grocery stores, we’ve put together a “Local Food Drive-Thru.” Along with a cheesemaker, baker and produce grower, we launched 48 hours after an initial brainstorming session.

It has exploded with interest and sales.

People order online and pick up between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. on either Wednesdays or Fridays in the parking lot of a local restaurant.

All the items are prepacked, assembled and alphabetized so that when a customer drives up, she announces her name and we toss the groceries into her back seat.

The transaction literally takes seconds, and nobody even has to get out of a car. Now other farmers are joining, increasing the product portfolio, and word is buzzing around town.

For the first time, I think we have a credible local alternative to Kroger curbside pickup. For sure, the whole social distancing requirement is pushing people to internet sales like nothing else could have.

Perhaps millions of new online buyers are now getting groceries on the e-commerce platform.

The folks driving up to this convenient pickup venue are telling us they like this local shopping platform better than any they’ve tried.

They can still call or visit any farm(er) they want to, for relationship, for vetting, for understanding. But for those who just want to get the goods and go, this offers fantastic efficiency.

And they don’t have to go anywhere on the weekend; they can pick up on their way home from work.

What’s not to love?

Many people now feel let down by the supermarket system and have seen firsthand how a local food system can rise to the occasion.

Having tasted more authentic food, they’re hooked… and that bodes well for the local food economy.

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