Grocery Trends: COVID-19 Bolsters Support For Local Food Systems

December 29, 2020
Farmer's market produce

This story originally appeared in Today's Grocer. It is the first of three in a series titled 'The Future of Grocery.'

When COVID-19 hit, grocery stores and other businesses selling essential goods experienced an unprecedented spike in demand. Consumers facing empty shelves, long lines, and stay-at-home orders turned online and formed new behaviors. Now there’s mounting evidence that these new behaviors are here to stay. 

In this three-part series, we’ll feature progressive grocers who have been agile and quick to pivot in the face of unprecedented challenges during COVID-19. They’ll weigh in on what we can expect to see in grocery for 2021, and how they’re preparing their businesses so they can continue to thrive in this fast-paced and unpredictable world.

Part I: The Future is Local

COVID-19 has shown us how large, complex supply chains can be disrupted, leaving empty supermarket shelves, food wastage, the shutdown of processing plants, and terminated exports. It has also highlighted the importance of establishing strong, local food systems with transparent supply chains which provide a multitude of benefits to producers, suppliers, and consumers:

The local food movement is undergoing a renaissance thanks to COVID-19, with local farms, producers, and CSAs seeing a significant uptick in demand.  

“We believe in a food system grounded in equity, respect, and food justice,” explained Beth Leonard, CFO at 4P Foods, a Washington D.C. food hub. “When we got into COVID, people were largely looking for contactless home delivery they could count on because they were scared to go to the store. what we’re seeing [now] is that while these new customers joined us for convenience, they are now staying for the mission.”

Since March, 4P Foods’ home delivery business has grown 3x, with deliveries made to about 3,500 homes across D.C., Virginia, and Maryland every week.

“Supporting local foods enables farmers to earn a living wage, and enables good, nutritious food to be accessible and affordable to everyone.”

Fewer touch points also mean a much lower risk of contamination. Supply chain transparency gives consumers a sense of security, knowing exactly where their food has come from. 

“COVID gave local food a platform to take a big leap,” said Amy McCann, CEO of Local Food Marketplace, a company that builds software for farmers and food hubs. “When you buy from a farm, it might’ve touched a couple of hands versus dozens of hands if it’s been sourced from across the country.”

Local Food Marketplace has doubled the number of farms on their platform to nearly 10,000 and are projected to triple their sales volume this year.

Local Foods, a retail market and wholesale distributor in the Midwest, shuttered their retail market and quickly pivoted to offer curbside pickup and home delivery via their online store in April. Fleet manager Jesse Bradley said their commitment to sourcing local kept their business alive during the pandemic.

“We got lucky in that we didn’t have any supply chain interruptions,” Bradley said. “Whether or not there is a pandemic going on, crops are still going to be growing and farmers are still going to be harvesting. Our ultimate strength is how high quality our product is and where the produce comes from. When you buy apples from us, it’s really the freshest food you can possibly get outside of going to an orchard.”

Locally sourced food is better for local communities and economies, is more resilient to supply chain disruptions, and is better for our health and for the environment. While the pandemic has shown us the weaknesses that exist within our global food system, today’s progressive grocers can take this opportunity to rethink the way we produce, distribute and eat food in order to help build a healthier and more sustainable world.

Suzanne Ma

Written by Suzanne Ma

Suzanne Ma is co-founder at Routific, a delivery management and route optimization solution that helps local food businesses scale up home delivery operations.