The COVID-19 pandemic has unraveled the food supply chain. Farmers around the country who rely on restaurants, schools, cafes, and businesses as their main customers are experiencing massive profit loss. Tons of fresh food that would normally be sold to these businesses is at risk of going to waste, as B2B food suppliers are slowing or stopping orders from farmers.
Despite the incredible hardship, fear, and uncertainty that comes with living in the age of a pandemic, farmers, food suppliers, and community members are coming together to find resourceful and enterprising solutions to help the community get direct access to fresh, affordable food.
“We live in a world where most folks don’t really think about where their food is coming from, or how it gets to them,” says Rachel Fell, Drive Thru at The Farm‘s Communication Consultant. “When you order at a restaurant, your food shows up twenty minutes later completely prepared for you. You go grocery shopping and pick and choose whatever it is you might need. But the supply chain behind those experiences often goes unexamined. How does the food get to the grocery stores and restaurants? Where is it sourced from? How many ‘stops’ does it make? We’re hoping our program helps folks start thinking about these things, and asking questions.”
Drive Thru at The Farm is the brainchild of Tom Schmitt, who owns The Farm (a.k.a. the former Growing Power site). Schmitt is a local CPA with a deep passion for farming and urban agriculture. In 2018, after he bought the property, he and his family and a small team of local farmers (including Growing Power’s beloved Will Allen) began working on a plan to revitalize the space.
Schmitt’s original plans to turn the Farm into a collaborative community farming site and venue were thrown off due to the pandemic. Schmitt is one of hundreds of farmers across the country who faced immediate disruption to business as usual.
“Tom is really passionate about farming,” Fell says. “And not just the Farm site. For him, the heart of what he cares about lies in farming—those who supply all of us, including food supply companies, with fresh produce, meat, and dairy products.”
Schmitt’s background in finance and business helped him recognize the several ways our food supply chain would be dismantled due to the pandemic. He immediately searched for a new, temporary system that could be quickly activated to save the livelihood of farmers, reduce incredible amounts of food waste, and provide the community with fresh produce, meat, and dairy products through the pandemic.
Drive Thru at The Farm was designed to help farmers and suppliers keep things moving by rearranging the food supply chain. The site serves as the new intermediary for community members to purchase bulk, fresh food that would normally go to restaurants and businesses.
This system keeps big food suppliers like Sysco ordering from farmers and food producers, and keeps regional farmers operational. Instead of selling the food to restaurants and businesses, Milwaukee-area community members can buy boxes of bulk food directly from the Farm and pick it up on Fridays.
Through this pandemic, Drive Thru at The Farm has been one of Sysco’s most active and largest accounts in the state. “We can infer that we’re having an impact in keeping the supply chain moving, and by being a temporary conduit we’re helping to keep farmers, producers, and suppliers afloat,” Fell says.
The Drive Thru at The Farm system is simple. Each week, the group puts together a box of produce, dairy products, and optional meat products based on what is available. They then communicate through Facebook, giving their audience updates on what is in that week’s box. Customers then pre-order (using Venmo) that week’s box by midnight on Wednesday ($20 for the produce-only; $40 for produce plus meat and dairy), and can pick up their boxes at the Farm on Thursday from 12-4 p.m.
The response from the community has been overwhelming. “We’ve sold out of stock almost every week,” Fell says. “We’re definitely seeing that there’s a need to get fresh, affordable produce and food items to folks in a convenient way. There’s definitely an existing gap in our food systems as present, and I think the Farm is interested in finding out how it might fill that gap.”
Drive Thru at The Farm is a minimal contact system; Farm staff members put the box of fresh food directly in a customer’s trunk or back seat. For those who missed the pre-order, or wish to use cash or credit card, they offer first-come, first-serve boxes that are sold on Fridays, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. As safer-at-home restrictions are eased, the produce boxes will be available on a drive-up basis with set hours during the week. The Drive Thru at The Farm team is listening to their customers and the needs of their staff and adjusting throughout this crisis, so make sure to check their Facebook page for the latest updates.
In addition to finding a safe, minimal contact loophole in the food supply system, the team at Drive Thru at The Farm also started a “buy a box” program, where customers can buy a box of fresh food to be donated to area nonprofits. Since the inception of the program, the Drive Thru team has been able to donate 150 boxes of fresh produce, dairy products, and meat to community partners.
What’s in the future for Drive Thru at The Farm? First, they are trying to ensure at least one item in every week’s box is from a Wisconsin farmer, and to always include a dairy product. The team is also working on building a more robust communication channel, possibly including a website and some e-commerce options. When restaurants and businesses start to safely reopen, the Farm leadership team will discuss how to leverage the site and create a “storefront” space. They are also considering a CSA-type program, without a required membership, to continue to serve the community.
Drive Thru at The Farm currently sells about 700 boxes of fresh food every week, and they only continue to grow. As the pandemic reveals more about the fragile realities of modern American life, a system like Drive Thru at The Farm may have some real lasting power.
“The reality is that we’re very disconnected from our food,” Fell says. “We’re hoping that this system might help to impact understanding, mindsets, and behaviors regarding food and our collective relationship to it.”