Food security has been a hot topic as of late due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As we watch videos of tons of produce being dumped, slows or stoppages in the food supply chain have suddenly come to the forefront for U.S. consumers. Many have gone from never giving a second thought to where their food comes from to wondering if supply is going to stop altogether.
According to the World Food Program, the COVID-19 pandemic could double the number of low- and middle-income people impacted by food insecurity by the end of 2020. Food availability is going to have to get a lot more localized, which means urban agriculture has an ever-increasing role to play in food security.
Farm to table
I grew up in small villages across southwest Germany. Local farmers provided many of the necessary goods to their communities, from farm to table. I would walk down the Hauptstrasse (main street) with my metal can to collect fresh milk from the small farm in town. The produce, meat and bread trucks all made stops throughout the village; one of those stops was right in front of our house. We got especially excited when the bread truck, a bright orange VW van, would roll up and throw open their side door, revealing all manner of irresistible fresh goodies. I wish I could buy my food right off those trucks today.
I reached out to Bowery Farming in New York to see how they were weathering the changing food supply issues and what plans they have for meeting their communities needs for produce. With distribution chains disrupted, Bowery felt an immediate impact in terms of local retailers and grocery stores reaching out to them to stock their shelves. While I am sure the new business opportunity was welcome on one front, the situation was, and is, of course rife with challenges.
“Produce is fresh supply and is not something that can be created in a day. Couple that with a short shelf life, and the logistics of increasing produce supply to meet current consumer demand becomes further complicated,” says Carmela Cugini, Bowery’s EVP of sales.
Growers and retailers who already had contingency or emergency protocols in place before the pandemic have no doubt been better able to serve local customers and grow their business. “We had a plan in place to support retailers during unprecedented times,” Cugini says.
The previous romaine and arugula shortages earlier in the year had given them the opportunity to test ramping up production and distribution. Based on local requests from retailers and grocery stores, Cugini says, they are continuing to increase production to help keep store shelves stocked and keep community needs met.
With food localization in mind, my first thought relates to how urban growers and controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) growers should be scaling up and branching out to reach and serve new local communities. With freshness and speed of access key, keeping facilities close to the point of consumption is, of course, key, according to Cugini.
Expansion is on their minds as well. Bowery Farming currently has two farms located in Kearny, New Jersey, and one farm in Baltimore, Maryland, Cugini says they plan to build additional farms domestically and internationally to serve more local communities.
Most urban growers and CEAs are focused on growing leafy greens, but the reality is we cannot survive on leafy greens alone. If you are growing under glass or other forms of CEA, growing beyond greens is potentially your next big challenge. While leafy greens are small and perfectly suited to quick turnaround, controlled urban agriculture, all forms of fruiting produce are going to be in big demand at the local level. Growing fruit, which notably demands more space and input, requires a much different growing configuration as well environmental controls. According to Cugini, Bowery has already begun experimenting with non-leafy greens and intends to sell new types of produce in the future.
Teamwork and community are going to be new necessities in our future food system. Partnering with other local farmers and allied producers to build a more solid local food supply network may be a good strategy. Big, long-distance distribution just may not make sense anymore in our new “normal.” How can you work with local dairy, meat and grain producers to find new ways to provide consumers with all the different types of food they need? Here in Dallas, I watched several restaurants – that could not operate during the shutdown – work with their local food producers to put together deliveries of fresh produce and meats. Customers could then pick up boxes of fresh locally produced food. It is a brilliant solution, and one that takes me back to my farm truck days.
Bowery Farming recently announced their support for local community programs including Table to Table, DC Central Kitchen, Teens for Food Justice, Fresh Farms and the Maryland Food Bank. Cugini says Bowery is providing more than 400 pounds of fresh produce each week to their partners during this time of increased need.
This pandemic may mark a crucial moment in time for urban agriculture. CEAs and greenhouse growers can grow food responsibly, safely and exactly where and when people need it.
Some additional good news for produce growers is that current evidence indicates that the coronavirus does not spread through food and food packaging. Along with this positive message to consumers, produce growers can tie in helpful personal hygiene and surface-sanitizing practices with their marketing.
Growing your urban agriculture business during these times is not just about produce and profits. To create a sustainable future, for both your business and our food supply, it must also be about growing a healthy community network. Now is the time to get vocal, in a positive and authentic manner, about what you do and how you do it.