Farmers and food co-ops are quickly developing delicious, secure solutions for home delivery and subscription programs in these uncertain times. Here are three smart ways to rethink your food shopping right now and create a win-win for you and your local food producers.
woman farmer with box of kale
Credit: Dougal Waters / Getty Images

As restaurant closures roll across the country and social distancing becomes the norm under federal guidelines, Seattle, Washington took the additional step of closing farmers' markets on Friday, March 13, 2020 (they operate under event permits rather than standard retail or restaurant permits). As a result, small farms are losing their customers and their livelihood. Yet, as we all shift to eating at home, there are safe, simple ways to buy your family fresh, nutritious food while supporting your local food economy at the same time.

What the Problem Looks Like

Western Washington was home to the nation's first case of coronavirus at the end of January, leading to a sharp decline in restaurant and farmers' market sales throughout February. After experiencing up to a 90 percent drop in sales, renowned restaurateur Tom Douglas was one of the first to temporarily shutter 12 of his 13 downtown Seattle restaurants, laying off about 800 people on March 11.

Two days later, the city's farmers' markets closed. Sarah Reeves of Growing Washington [GW] says, "GW didn't receive a final decision about markets closing until Friday evening. By then, everything had already been harvested and prepped, so the farm lost about $7,500 in sales (based on what we sold last year) plus about $3,500 for the harvest and prep work. The previous weekend, market sales were down about $4,900 compared to that weekend last year. [Executive Director Clayton Burrows] would turn to wholesale to help make up the difference, but restaurant accounts aren't buying anything since they're also facing insolvency."

How You Can Be Part of the Solution

If your local farmers' markets do close, look for vendors offering free delivery or banding together for small pop-up sales. Now's the time to follow your market organization and favorite farms on social media — Instagram posts offered a dozen creative options to replace Seattle's closed markets within the first 24 hours of the announcement and more are added daily. Lori Babcock of Tieton Farm & Creamery says, "We are trying to bring more people to the farm; it's less disruptive than sitting in an empty parking lot for hours. Some local businesses are starting to reach out to us, for an impromptu market, and we may try a brewery and a flower shop — we need to reach our customers somehow!" Benefits to shoppers include important reductions to crowd size while maintaining a steady supply of fresh, varied ingredients grown and harvested with outstanding care.

box of fresh produce
Credit: Westend61 / Getty Images

Three Smart Ways to Rethink Your Shopping Habits

1. Prioritize local brands

You may be used to spotting "locally made" shelf tags where you shop, or perhaps you only expect local ingredients in the produce department. Availability varies across the country, but look for local labels on pantry ingredients like honey, nuts, grains, beans, locally roasted coffee, and baking mixes, where you'll frequently find outstanding quality, cool heirloom varieties and gorgeous flavors. Aside from these staples, add a couple local cheeses and pair them with new-to-you beverages from regional producers for home happy hour — look for fresh juices, root beer or kombuchas to make it alcohol-free, or go with indie beer, wine or cider.

Food co-ops can be a terrific source. They tend to have separate supply chains from national grocers, which means that their shelves may more heavily feature locally produced products (frequently along with entertaining or informative messaging), and their shelves may be more amply stocked with things that are hard to find elsewhere. More than one national directory exists: check the volunteer-run Coop Directory Service and the National Coop Grocers Association for the most comprehensive options, as not all are listed on both.

Finally, support your community's family-owned food businesses, like bakeries, butchers, delis, and fishmongers. It's striking to consider that those who have lasted a century were in business during the Spanish Influenza outbreak; they are worth preserving now.

2. Sign up for a CSA

Buying into a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program gets farmers cash at the start of the growing season (when they need it most) and reduces your grocery bill considerably over the course of your local growing season; they're for customers who can afford to pay up front for a season's worth of ingredients. Programs differ in the details, but typically CSAs run for 20 to 36 weeks of the year, providing members with weekly boxes of fresh, seasonal produce (and sometimes add-ons like bread, eggs, honey, milk, flowers or meat). Delivery is most often through neighborhood drop-off points — and sometimes there are discounts available if you sign up as a host. Best of all from a home cook's perspective: The freshness is impeccable, and you'll find perishable ingredients have a longer fridge life than vegetables that have made their way to you from other states.

Local Harvest is a handy place to start your CSA search — just type in your zip code — but also ask among your immediate community to see if anyone has a recommendation.

3. Check into home delivery

Leaving a cooler on the porch to be directly filled by the same person who packed the truck minimizes contamination risks, and the quality of ingredients like pastured eggs and grass-fed meat makes cooking a true joy. If you don't live in a city, you may think home delivery isn't an option, but farmers are doing what they can to reach customers anywhere they can.

Many farms that had limited or no home delivery are expanding options as quickly as possible. Sylvanaqua Farms in northern Virginia has ramped up delivery dates of their chicken, pork, and eggs, and put out the call to farms in their region to add more products for farm-to-porch delivery as fruit and row crops become available.

Olsen Farms, a rancher and potato farmer in the northeast corner of Washington, is hoping increased delivery options will help their bottom line as they work to make up about $40,000 in lost Seattle market sales. Kira Olsen says, "Over the past few days, we've received an uplifting amount of support from our regular market shoppers. We plan to do all that we can to make up for lost sales during this time by engaging in alternative distribution options such as home deliveries and working in cooperation with other farms and local businesses who have shareable resources (i.e. space to offer order pick up or pop-up stores if allowed)."

It's a complicated time, with sometimes conflicting priorities, but for now, these buying priorities can help to procure the best ingredients possible while directly supporting those who work to keep us well fed.