US Postal Service Could be Missing Link for Getting Surplus Food from Farms to Families

A new analysis from World Wildlife Fund (WWF) identifies the United States Postal Service (USPS) as a potential player in bringing fresh produce to people who may lack access through existing services. Each year, an estimated 17 million tons of crops never make it off the farm, when millions of people in the U.S. live in food insecure households. Farmers Post, a WWF business case, proposes a model that can reduce this loss by utilizing the vast logistical network of the USPS to deliver food surplus direct from farm to consumers, with the help of a third-party interface.

“Access to fresh fruits and vegetables should not be considered a luxury, but across the U.S., food deserts and higher-cost delivery services routinely put these essential foods out of reach,” said Julia Kurnik, director of innovation startups, World Wildlife Fund’s Markets Institute. “Pairing this reality with the extensive loss of viable food on our nation’s farms, Farmers Post offers a win-win solution to combat on-farm food loss, while making produce delivery more affordable and accessible.”

In practice, Farmers Post would use the existing USPS systems so farmers can offer a standard flat-rate box that would provide a low-cost option when delivered relatively locally—within about two postal codes. Each participating farm would offer their box within an existing postal route, ensuring the boxes could be picked up and delivered without significantly contributing to any additional environmental impacts.

“COVID-19 has only exacerbated hunger and lack of access to nutritious food. It’s been heartbreaking over the past year to see images of fresh food left to rot, next to mile-long lines at foodbanks,” added Kurnik. “Prior to the pandemic, 40 million Americans lived in food insecure households, with only one in 10 American adults getting the fruits and vegetables they need. We’re seeing our food systems in the U.S. and across the globe break down in real time. There is so much pressure on farmers right now, and they need a lifeline. The program we’re proposing could really help.”

According to the business case, the Farmers Post model has the potential to be both highly cost-competitive and environmentally beneficial. Because the produce would be picked up and delivered directly via USPS, Farmers Post would eliminate costs, including supply chain markups or fees from participating in farmers markets, and minimize the environmental impact from the farm level food loss as well as traveling long-distances to enter the market.

Farmers and consumers are not the only groups to benefit. Given the current funding challenges facing the Postal Service, the model identifies an opportunity to diversify funding. Just a modest consumer uptake of 2-3% could potentially add $1.5B in annual revenue for USPS, and up to $6B if consumer uptake reached 10%.

The analysis dives deep into the possible advantages and limitations of the model, but concludes with proper implementation, the Farmers Post could deliver game-changing opportunities for the benefit of farmers, consumers, USPS, and the environment.