Each year, the Markets Institute @ WWF identifies top issues, trends, and tools that could impact our food systems, to drive forward critical discussion of actions needed to address climate change and the loss of habitats and biodiversity. One category of tools that consistently emerges is new business models—the need for ones that address not only traditional financial indicators, but that also seek to confront social and environmental inequity in our systems. The Institute explores such models; one example considers the potential for the US Postal Service and farmers to come together to offer consumers fresh produce that is both affordable and accessible.
Online grocery shopping skyrocketed in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, shattering growth expectations and accelerating the pace of growth by 5 years or more. Nevertheless, many are left behind by the current options for grocery delivery. Added costs like delivery fees, tips (well-deserved for shoppers and drivers working on a contract basis and risking exposure to shop), service fees, and other, sometimes hidden, costs often put such services out of reach of consumers who would otherwise like the convenience or benefits of online grocery shopping. Some of these consumers would also most stand to benefit from staying home and not risking exposure to COVID-19, including seniors and people with disabilities, among others.
Additionally, the number of SNAP beneficiaries in 2020 rose by around 15%, from approximately 37 million to 43 million, and while some online platforms accept SNAP, recipients still may not be able to afford service fees, which are not covered by SNAP benefits. How, then, can we transform the food system to get healthy produce to consumers that want it in a convenient, safe, and affordable fashion?
A Solution Could be in the Mail
The USPS already delivers across the country, including to and from the very farms that provide the kind of fresh produce consumers look to purchase at the grocery store. Farmers Post seeks to establish the viability of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) style boxes, which would likely be picked up at farms at the end of daily routes and delivered to consumers the next day with little to no product deterioration. This model has the potential to add critical revenue streams for the USPS and farmers, particularly of small and medium-sized farms, while addressing social inequities by making produce delivery of locally and seasonally available items straight to the home available to anyone who receives mail from the postal service, including rural communities often underserved by grocery stores and other innovative produce delivery models.
Naturally, there are some challenges to the service, some of which apply to traditional CSAs – seasonality, for example, will not enable the same variety as grocery stores, delivery windows may not be optimal, etc. Nevertheless, if the concept is taken and thoughtfully designed to reach consumers while enabling the USPS and farmers to increase their earnings, the potential is vast. If we take the concept further, SNAP benefits could be enhanced through an incentive program to multiply the benefits. A national study that assessed SNAP incentives at farmers’ markets demonstrated strong consumer support for buying fresh produce, but also bolstered both farmers and local economies. Imagine if similar results could be achieved nationwide through Farmers Post, which has the potential for much broader uptake via home delivery.
As we continue to learn and consider how COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted communities of color and essential workers who are unable to work from home, so, too, do we need to seek out business models to better serve consumers who want to eat healthy and with values that honor their bodies and the planet. It is time to move beyond the myth that environmentally-sound products and healthy food by necessity must be unaffordable to those who may want them. New models, such as Farmers Post, have the potential to prove this paradigm false by providing healthy and economically viable solutions that are good for both people of all walks of life and nature.