Like it has in China, Covid-19 is now posing herculean problems for swaths of the US food system. Workers have fallen ill, several important meatpacking plants have shut down, and almost all restaurants are closed.
But the disease caused by the novel coronavirus has also opened a rare and inviting window into the past, improbably made possible by grocery delivery companies.
The spread of Covid-19 has been a boon for companies like Instacart and FreshDirect—those that largely deliver food from large chain grocery stores. But it’s also injected energy into outfits that specialize in connecting people with foods that exclusively are locally grown and produced.
Such is the case with MilkRun, which works directly with produce, meat, and dairy farms in the region around Portland, Oregon. Since Covid-19 broke out in that area, the company’s CEO, Julia Niiro, says business has boomed by 500%, enough to justify hiring 18 people from the battered restaurant industry to help meet delivery demand.
On the other side of the country, in Lakeland, Florida, Luis Giudicelli says business is up at his food delivery company, Tampa Bay Organics, which services five counties in the Tampa Bay area. Before the virus, the company delivered to about 240 people each week. Now it’s delivering to about 700—a 190% increase. The company has hired nine people and purchased four new vans to handle the added delivery orders. Some of those new customers even came from unexpected places.
“People from out-of-state are setting up accounts for their retired parents,” Giudicelli says. “One lady in London set up an account for someone within our delivery range.”
As the virus has spread across the US and upended aspects of public life, it has forced people to confront uncomfortable norms within the food system. People sheltering in place are cooking home-made meals more often, which could have them thinking more carefully about the quality of their ingredients.
That realization has led some people—those with the privilege to choose food based on factors other than price—to make more conscientious decisions about grocery delivery. That’s included turning to deliverers aligned with principles long-held by the slow-food movement, which champions regional cuisine and promotes farming within local ecosystems. In the process, these specialized delivery companies have provided a technological adrenaline shot to some local agricultural economies.
“In this movement, the goal was always to reconnect people and to remind people that really good food that’s responsibly grown by 90% of the nation’s farmers isn’t far away,” Niiro says. “We don’t compare ourselves with companies like Postmates that are very much about convenience. You can’t go to a grocery store and get greens that were picked out of a field less than 24 hours ago.”
The farms that often supply these services are also having to be nimble. Rock Steady Farms in the Hudson Valley, just a few hours north of New York City, has experienced an increase in people signing up for its delivery program. The co-owner of that farm, Maggie Cheney, says many farms in her region usually do wholesale business with now-closed New York City restaurants, and have had to work quickly and carefully to shift to direct-to-consumer models. That shift has included working with delivery services such as Farm to People, which delivers food from farms directly to people in New York City.
“More people are cooking at home, so they are seeking better ingredients, especially New Yorkers, who are in such a restaurant and service scene,” Cheney says.
To be sure, not everyone turning to local food in this moment is doing it by choice. Some may be using local options because demand for big-box delivery services is too high or they’re scared to brave a grocery store. But for those who are intentionally choosing local—which farmers and delivery companies like MilkRun are seeing a lot—the trend could signal long-term change.
By providing a way for long-struggling local farm economies across the US to connect with new customers, delivery services are reconnecting people to food systems as they used to work. In some communities, that could give the slow-food movement a breath of life.
Shoppers in grocery stores are accustomed to perusing wide selections of fruits, vegetables, meats, and cheeses, but do so with little concept of the supply chains that make that abundance possible. Where food is physically produced—a few miles away, a few states away, or in some far-flung corner of the globe—hardly matters to the average consumer. People can buy organic produce, cage-free eggs, and grass-fed beef, but none of those labels promise proximity to farms.
A veil exists between the food consumers eat and the land from which it came. And in the US, that shouldn’t be surprising: The way communities feed themselves was overhauled in the early part of the 20th century.
In 1900, 41% of the US workforce was employed in agriculture—operating the 6.5 million farms that used to feed the nation. Within 30 years that was cut by half; within 70 years it had shrunk to 4%; and by the 2000s it was just 2%. The shift coincided with a mass migration to large urban cities, and signaled one of the most dramatic food system shifts in history. Local agricultural economies were replaced by a more consolidated system. Today two carrot farms provide the US with 85% of its carrots. The bulk of the nation’s meat is produced by four companies.
And it’s not just consolidation. Increasingly, the US has opted to import many of its agricultural goods from outside its own borders. Mexico, in particular, has become a major supplier of vegetables that appear in most grocery stores.
That system, one that relies on big companies and foreign markets, has big weak spots, as have been exposed by the spread of Covid-19.
Massive consolidation has historically impacted several of the US food system’s sectors. Dean Foods and Dairy Farmers of America together control about 70% of the US milk supply. The merger between Anheuser-Busch and SABMiller meant one company controlled a third of the US beer market. This winds up decreasing competition in the marketplace, which means quality takes a hit as consumers are left with fewer options.
And when something like the coronavirus is introduced to big plants that supply an outsized amount of food, it can wreak havoc on the food supply. Within about a month of the virus spreading across the US, Covid-19 infections among workers became a concern for produce farmers and meatpackers. In the first week of April, coronavirus-related illnesses forced a handful of meatpacking plants to shut down.
At least one of those facilities, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is operated by multinational meat giant Smithfield Foods. The closures led its CEO to release a stark statement saying the virus “is pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply.” That problem could conceivably spread to places that manufacture other goods, such as flour, cereals, and packaged goods.
Virtually untouched, though, is the constellation of small operations peppered across the country. John Henry Streur is a beef rancher at The Little Seven Seven Ranch in the Columbia River Gorge, about 100 miles east of Portland, Oregon. His ranch works with MilkRun. Based on his own sales to the delivery company, Streur says he can tell that interest in locally-produced foods has increased since the onset of Covid-19.
“We’re selling out as soon as we slaughter, butcher, and age,” he says. “It’s quite an escalation in demand.”
Normally, the ranch can keep thousands of pounds of meat as inventory. These days, though, the demand for his beef is so high that Streur says it goes out the door almost as soon as it’s available. There’s always been a group of people who’ve placed a premium on access to local food, but if delivery numbers during the coronavirus pandemic show anything, it’s that more people are being added to those ranks.
“Will that niche grow as a result of the experience the country is going through? It definitely will,” Streur says. “There are lots of reasons why people are thinking about where things come from and the health impact.”
Just how much it will grow, and whether people will continue to use these services and buy local once the US economy shifts back on and people turn back to restaurants for many of their meals is the big question. Giudicelli says he hopes to keep at least one-third of his new members. Streur says he expects a lot of new customers will stay but a lot will also retreat.
Analysts at UBS in an April 12 report wrote that, even when restaurants do re-open, people who’ve started eating more at home won’t revert back to their old ways. Not immediately, at least.
“The current pivot in food expenditures to at-home consumption could result in a longer lasting shift in food consumption behaviors post Covid-19,” the report says. “Given post-crisis focus has historically been on value, and some consumers have developed an appreciation for at-home meals, an incremental percentage of dollars spent on food at home could remain there even as restaurants re-open.”
In non-analyst-speak, they’re saying some people actually like cooking at home. The big question is whether the people who chose delivery companies that specialize in local foods will be charmed enough to stick with the services when things get back to normal.
“On a human level, when we spend time connecting, reconnecting, or awakening, in many ways that changes you,” Niiro says.
The change relies on something that, at least right now, is tough to quantify. That’s because how people think about and value where their food comes from is a highly experiential process.
Niiro claims MilkRun has a 90% customer retention rate. That’s good news for local farms around the Portland area. And maybe—just maybe—that same ethos will keep people rediscovering what’s near them.