The coronavirus has exposed the vulnerabilities and fragility of the U.S. food supply chain. Trips to the market during the pandemic have shown bare shelves, and signs indicating products can no longer be guaranteed in stock.
However, the food story isn’t all grim. In fact there has been a surge in support for small, local growers and producers through the pandemic.
“What originally started as a near panic attack when the markets closed has turned into an amazing opportunity for us to reach a wider section of the community,” said Brian Lapinski of Down to Earth Farms. “We have sold at least 50% more each week compared to 2019 and some of the weeks have been close to double.”
March was the beginning of a peak harvest time for North Florida. Traditional large scale farmer’s markets were canceled to help curb the spread of Covid-19, which meant that farmers and producers had to pivot quickly in order to ensure their products could make it into the hands of their community.
“Lots of vendors had to reinvent their business models overnight, and have really done it well. We are now seeing a lot of online markets, pre-orders, home deliveries, and the farmers I have talked to are struggling to keep up with the demand.” Fresh Access Bucks Program Manager Katie Delaney said.
To help meet the increased demand local producers partnered up with local businesses to set up mini-markets where customers could buy directly from the farmer. In other instances local businesses purchased extra quantities of produce in order to offer a small selection of grocery items, in many cases selling what they were using to make their own menu items. Others extended their capacities for customers to order digitally making the whole process contactless.
“The produce itself is delicious, it just tastes different than what I would get at the store, and the fact that it’s dropped right at my door is very convenient,” UNF alumni Jayme Hillyer said. “I like knowing that the produce I’m getting comes from local farms and I get to experiment with produce that is in season.”
The partnerships between farmers and small businesses have proven to be very fruitful. However, they don’t meet all the needs of the area. That’s where organizations like Feeding Florida and its local branch, Feeding Northeast Florida, have been able to fill some of the gaps by acting quickly to gather and redistribute food from the big suppliers.
“One of the most beautiful things through this has been the new collaborations,” Delaney said. “We see organizations who may have never worked together before teaming up in order to solve problems.”
One such example can be seen in the partnership forged between Feeding Northeast Florida, Florida Blue, the Black Sheep restaurant group and Congaree and Penn. They teamed up and were able to use Florida Blue’s grant program to pay restaurant employees to come in to work and turn an overabundance of produce donations into meals which they then delivered to homebound seniors.
Which brings up another good point about accessibility.
“Fresh food can really be something that is only available for people of privilege and it’s so important to make sure that everybody has access to really high quality products,” Delaney said.
In order to help achieve this access goal Feeding Florida runs a program called Fresh Access Bucks. Through this program people who are using Snap benefits can double their money when shopping with certain vendors across the state. Getting fresh, locally grown produce for a fraction of the cost of the grocery stores.
While global supply chains continue to break down, the million-dollar question is: how much is this trend for supporting local farmers going to continue?
“A lot of us are hoping that this fountain of energy for supporting small businesses in our area is not just a fad,” Lapinski said. “Vibrant small businesses improve our community in so many ways, but I think the fact that it gives our culture an identity that is separate from the giant corporations is crucial.”
While farmer’s markets slowly begin to reopen with modifications to keep producers and consumers safe, fresh produce can still be found across town and ordered straight to your door. This list highlights just a few local farmers and producers who are operating at this time. For UNF students, Student Government is still working with the Ogier gardens and select contributors to offer free produce and pantry items Monday – Friday between 12 p.m. and 3 p.m.
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