Can digital platforms open up the booming farmers market category for easier access to local foods and goods?
Using online services to live a more local lifestyle is a concept that seems like a paradox – it’s the worldwide web after all – but in the food realm, the digital world is helping to bring more local producers and consumers together.
Much like some grocery stores have implemented online shopping capabilities for their customers, farmers markets are the next frontier. In fact, when it comes to supporting a more local economy, the digital space can be an excellent platform for facilitating exchanges between producers and customers.
Many farmers markets are implementing online platforms which allow their customers to shop from home; this is an ideal set up for smaller scale co-ops that allow members to peruse the selection online, make an order and then collect it at the designated pick up. Even in my small hometown in Western Washington my parents shop local goods online thanks to the platform that their co-op Fresh Food Revolution uses, Local Food Marketplace, which hosts online farmers markets, CSAs, wholesalers, and buying clubs across the US. Local farmers use it to update what they have available, co-op members make their orders, and pick up day is Wednesday afternoon, and you better be sure to put it on your calendar.
It goes without saying that we live busy lives, and the ability to have a bit more flexibility when it comes to grocery shopping is a good thing. Farmigo is tapping into that exact idea. One of the key missions of the online platform is to “bring better quality food to everyone across the nation by giving them access to local, sustainable food directly from farmer.” Working with over 300 farms in 25 states, Farmigo accomplishes this by providing an online marketplace where farmers can better manage their CSA programs, and in turn have allowed farmers to directly interact with large companies like Google and Twitter.
Farmigo also recently launched its community-based initiative, tapping into the power of individuals who want to bring more local food to their own communities. The website allows for coordinating an online farmers market specifically for the community in question, and then a community center becomes the delivery site for local farms to deliver food that has traveled fewer than 100 miles. Shoppers order online and pick up their food within 48 hours of its harvest. Currently Farmigo has community initiatives going in California and New York.
Based in the Bay Area in California, GoodEggs is born out of a similar concept: create a hub to bring people and food closer together. Customers shop on the online marketplace, which features not only local produce, but harder to find products like locally baked gluten free muffins, granola and homemade soups. Think of it as the best of an underground market except with the ease of clicking and then picking up your entire purchase at one pick up location. What may have once been a hole-in-the-wall operation that people would only know about via word of mouth, these are the kind of digital tools that help farmers and food makers sell directly, in turn reaching a wider market.
But these digital applications aren’t just serving the individual consumer. If you want to change the food industry you have to attack it from all levels. FoodHub is doing just that by connecting professional food buyers, wholesale producers, distributors and industry suppliers in one community. Which means when the restaurateur wants a locally grown bunch of kale for the month’s salad special, he or she has a website that will tell them exactly where to get it.
Selling in an online space is also good for the farmers, not only because it expands their market, but because it lets them know how much they are going to sell, eliminating waste. Pitch a tent at farmers market over the weekend and you have to do some serious calculating for how many heads of cabbage and rutabagas to bring. An online system streamlines that process, which means farmers know exactly how much they are selling and where it’s going.
All these tools do however beg the question: while online platforms give us better access, are they discouraging us from engaging. The “Bowling Alone” social phenomenon is much discussed in political science circles, the idea that with the rise of internet and technology we spend more time alone than in community settings and in turn political involvement. The point of a farmers market after all isn’t just to get access to local food, it’s to engage in a discussion, and in a world where we already separate ourselves from society because of online channels, it’s important to keep in mind that even if we can make our purchases online, it shouldn’t stop us from interacting with the people that are producing what we’re buying. Conversation is just as much part of buying local as the actual products are – that’s something you simply don’t get when you shop at big box stores.
Ultimately, we can hope that platforms like these will not only provide greater access to good and local food, but also inspire us to engage more, talking about what we eat with those around us and seeking out new producers within our communities, all of which is part of the process of creating a more sustainable food system.
Images: Anna Brones