Combining Many Tools Helps Local Farmers Thrive

By Alexandria Neelis, Farm Fresh Rhode Island

Before the pandemic, Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s mobile market had exclusively connected wholesale buyers, including restaurants, schools, universities, hospitals, and grocers, to small and mid-sized farmers though an aggregated online order form, where farmers list their wares, set their own prices, and track their sales in real time. Once orders are placed, farmers bring their products to Farm Fresh for aggregation and delivery to customers on the food hub’s delivery trucks. 

On March 16, 2020, Farm Fresh invited Rhode Island residents in select cities to use Market Mobile to order local food for curbside pickup and home delivery. Thanks to this rapid pivot, farmers who relied on wholesale income via Market Mobile were able to make up almost all of the sales they lost when restaurants and institutions closed. Since March, Market Mobile has seen a 101.6% increase in sales for local farmers and food producers compared to the same timeframe last year. Residential delivery continues to provide a critical, local alternative to in-person shopping as the pandemic continues, and Market Mobile reached a whole new customer base to whom they will continue to offer local food delivery after the pandemic.

When Farm Fresh RI pivoted to residential sales, Market Mobile expanded payment options to include electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards so that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients could use their benefits when ordering products. As a recipient of a 2018 USDA Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) grant (now known as GusNIP), Farm Fresh RI was also able to apply a dollar-for-dollar match on SNAP-qualifying purchases of fresh fruits and vegetables via Market Mobile. This doubling of benefits saved each SNAP customer an average of 40 percent on groceries through the summer months.

Rhode Island was one of the first states able to accept P-EBT, or Pandemic EBT, which allowed for extended benefits for households with children who qualified for free or reduced-price meals at schools closed in response to COVID-19. As unemployment levels and SNAP qualifying households continue to rise, Market Mobile’s ability to accept EBT and P-EBT has been crucial. 

Farm Fresh RI also received a Farmers to Families Food Box (FFFB) contract through the USDA. This contract allowed Market Mobile to pack over 13,000 boxes of produce and local milk, meat, and cheese for the Rhode Island Community Food Bank over the course of fourteen weeks. Farm Fresh RI’s sourcing for the boxes was almost entirely from local farms, in contrast to many of the larger-scale organizations who received contracts nationwide. Unfortunately, updated program requirements did not meet the needs of Farm Fresh RI’s program recipients, and they ended their contract in September. However, with the help of the RI Community Food Bank, they were able to access CARES Act funding to provide a purchasing credit directly to food banks, enabling them to purchase local food directly for their clients. This new model gives more autonomy to food banks and allows them to respond to their communities needs. 

Learn more about the Gus Schmacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP)

Learn more about Pandemic EBT

Learn more about the Farm to Families Food Box Program

Learn more about CARES Act Community Block Grant Funding

Read more in How State and Federal Programs Support Farmers, Fishermen, Food Entrepreneurs and Consumers in the Northeast

Photo credit: Ciana Meyers/Blue December Art