Imagine a customer sitting at their favorite restaurant, perusing the menu and then asking the server: “Excuse me, where do your carrots come from? Are they locally grown?”
As states reopen after strict COVID-19 shutdowns, restaurants are getting back to business. But clearly, it won’t be the same for diners or restaurants anytime soon, with social distancing and mask-wearing still the norm in many states. Another thing may be different as well: diners’ preferences.
During the pandemic lockdowns, many consumers had their first experience buying local, healthful food, from carrots to poultry to grass-fed beef, as the pandemic disrupted traditional supply chains and caused shortages and empty shelves at the supermarket.
Many people, particularly in states that instituted strict lockdowns and social distancing to slow the pandemic’s spread, opted to avoid supermarkets altogether. They helped boost the businesses of meal-kit companies and home-delivery services — at least for the duration of the lockdowns.
Local farmers also stepped up to provide direct-to-consumer sales through Community Supported Agriculture boxes and other means. And many small, local restaurants and wholesalers suddenly found themselves in the grocery business. In New York, a company called Walden Local Meat delivered chicken, eggs and fish from local and regional producers direct to consumers, PBS NewsHour reported.
Here in Denver, FoodMaven, my company that constantly seeks to transform and improve the food system, pivoted from just supplying restaurants and institutions with imperfect and surplus food, often from local sources, to selling food in bulk to consumers for curbside pick-up and home delivery. Meanwhile, Rockey Farms in the San Luis Valley sent its potatoes to food banks and the Navajo Nation, and repackaged crops for retail stores. Reported the Colorado Sun, “They joined an army of farmers and ranchers across the country who are reshaping their industry after a historic collapse of supply chains and processing in the pandemic.”
Direct-to-consumer food sales have clearly boomed during the pandemic, but it remains to be seen what changes in consumer behavior will stay. Once people start frequenting restaurants again, establishments will weigh whether to go back to the old way of doing business or introduce new practices and menus that meet new consumer preference. Will they return to using their old supply chains, or will they incorporate more local foods and ingredients on their menus that came to market during the shutdowns?
Putting more emphasis on local supply chains makes sense from many perspectives. The World Economic Forum noted the need in a post-COVID world for “supporting local food systems with shorter, fairer and cleaner supply chains that address local priorities.”
The local movement clearly is growing, along with consumer demand. Groups like the Good Meat Project, which has helped start meat collectives around the country, are making it easier to buy local, ethically raised meat. “We are committed to building pathways for consumers, farmers, chefs, butchers and other food professionals to bring good, clean, fair meat to the table in their own communities,” the organization states on its website.
Why emphasize local? Here are just a few of the advantages to improving local supply chains.
More resilience. The shutdown of meat processing plants due to high rates of COVID-19 exposed the drawbacks of relying on just a few national producers for the nation’s meat supply. Author Michael Pollan told PBS that having more small and mid-sized regional and local producers in the supply chain would result in some redundancy, but that would also ensure more resiliency, in case a plant had to be shut down.
Consumer loyalty. Consumers like knowing they are supporting the businesses in their community, whether it is the small local bakery that makes amazing sourdough bread or the local farmer who makes goat cheese from his own flock.
Taste and quality. Locally produced foods that don’t have to travel hundreds of miles often taste fresher. And small producers often favor unique niche and specialty items that offer local chefs more variety and flexibility —the heirloom tomato for the simply perfect salad or a tender cut of local grass-fed beef for the daily special.
Smaller carbon footprint. Food that doesn’t have to travel cross-country results in fewer carbon emissions. It’s a win-win for the environment and for local businesses, whose customers perceive their commitment to environmental concerns. When consumers are closer to production, there’s also less concern about interstate travel restrictions that may vary from state to state. That means food will get from farm to fork with fewer delays.
Less waste. By capturing food coming from local sources, chefs and consumers can ensure more local product gets to market and doesn’t end up wasted. It’s not possible to source everything locally in Colorado, but we have a great variety of produce and proteins that often get shipped out of state rather than being sold nearby.
There’s no doubt that restaurants have struggled to stay afloat through this pandemic. Offering takeout and home delivery alone was not profitable for many, and we suspect many restaurants won’t be able to afford a complete shift to local sourcing. The infrastructure just isn’t there yet to make it truly easy for farmers to connect with their local markets, but we may see an increase of local products on menus as local food systems got a growth spurt during the shutdowns.
Sourcing ingredients locally can certainly yield culinary surprises and win diners’ hearts, but it can also be more expensive. If the local food movement is going to continue to grow and influence our food system, policy makers, restaurants and food retailers will have to take a hard look at how they can create viable markets and distribution of local food.
Ben Deda is the CEO of FoodMaven and oversees the operations of the socially conscious, for-profit company founded in 2015. He has held senior and executive leadership roles at Vertafore, Galvanize, FullContact and TruStile in operations, sales, marketing and support. Deda is also a co-founder and board member of Denver Startup Week, the largest free entrepreneurial event in North America. Ben has an MBA from the University of Denver and a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Notre Dame.
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