Farmers markets and “Community Supported Agriculture” bags brimming with local produce have become commonplace across much of the agriculturally fertile Pacific Northwest.
But our jam-packed schedules don’t always provide time for browsing the market stands or figuring out what to do with odd-ball veggies that sometimes wind up in a one-size-fits-all CSA delivery.
Seattle startup Pacific Coast Harvest is trying to change that by combining the convenience of home delivery with the ability to select local produce, all with the environmental, social and economic benefit of supporting nearby, small-scale farmers. Shoppers can browse the site, choosing between in-season nectarines, Walla Walla sweet onions and kale, as well as locally made cheeses, salami and fresh pasta. The site features farmer profiles, describing the farm acreage and location. On appointed delivery days, the food arrives in recyclable or reusable packaging.
Now, in a fresh twist on the concept, the company is teaming up with the city of Seattle and area preschools to provide the same service at a discount to lower-income families. Select families in the city’s Fresh Bucks to Go program are able to go online, select their fruits and vegetables and the items are dropped off every two weeks at their children’s preschools. It’s something of a Holy Grail in the public health and social services sectors — making it convenient for families with fewer means to get affordable, locally grown produce.
“Consumers can get access to higher quality, more sustainably grown fruits and veggies than they can from a traditional store,” said Christopher Teeny, managing owner of Pacific Coast Harvest.
Fresh Bucks to Go is an offshoot of the city of Seattle’s Fresh Bucks program, which helps lower-income shoppers buy produce by matching dollar-for-dollar for their SNAP/EBT benefits, also known as food stamps, at participating farmers markets and grocery stores. Fresh Bucks to Go started in 2012, but took off in recent years thanks to funding from Seattle’s voter-approved tax on sweetened beverages. Last year, 1,473 families received produce through Fresh Bucks to Go.
Teeny recently launched a pilot project with 250 families within the program who will be able to customize their orders just as his other customers can. They’ll have $15 of Fresh Bucks credits to buy their produce, and anything above that amount will be discounted 15% from the list price. Other Fresh Bucks to Go families will still receive bags of seasonal fruits and veggies selected for them, like traditional CSAs offer.
“Chris and Pacific Coast Harvest have really been the ones to use technology to transform this program,” said Natalie Thomson, senior food and nutrition planner with the city of Seattle’s Human Services Department.
When it comes to the Fresh Bucks to Go program in general, “we believe that the size and scale and intent of this program, which is really connecting the local food economy and food access, is pretty revolutionary,” Thomson said.
In addition to Pacific Coast Harvest and Thomson’s department, the program’s partners are the Seattle Department of Education and Early Learning and two nonprofits: the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority and Tilth Alliance.
While Pacific Coast Harvest is a key player in the food access program, the company is largely focused on sales in the central Puget Sound area. The startup, which launched in 2011 and has four employees, works with 250 Northwest farms but also includes a few farther afield suppliers so customers can still get basics such as bananas and avocados.
One of the locals is Vince Caruso, who owns the 10-acre Caruso Farms in Snohomish with his wife, Anna. Caruso grows roughly 125 different crops and sells his produce through Teeny’s company, as well as his own CSA, farmers markets and to restaurants. Adding more markets allows Caruso to grow larger amounts of some in-demand crops.
“You become a little more efficient that way,” Caruso said. “It does make you a little more profitable in the end. It moves the needle a little bit.”
Two University of Washington researchers studied the regional economics of Seattle’s food access programs, which includes the two Fresh Bucks initiatives and a third program. They found that every dollar Washington farmers received through these initiatives created at least $1.70 in economic activity in the state.
Caruso thinks it’s the right thing to help low-income people purchase local foods so “that money is not going to a corporate entity or leaving the local area,” he said.
Teeny is taking pains to be transparent about where his startup’s food comes from. Because the designation “local” lacks a specific definition, he sends a fact sheet with every delivery sharing information on each product, letting customers see how many miles away their produce was grown so they can judge what qualifies as local.
And when it comes to prices for the general marketplace, the produce from smaller farms sold through Pacific Coast Harvest is on par with premium grocers and lower than farmers markets, Teeny said. Organic items from bigger farms, local and otherwise, are cheaper from him than from higher-end markets. The company delivers to neighborhoods once a week. Orders over $30 are free, those between $15-30 are $3.25, and the rare order below $15 is $5.75.
“We see it as our responsibility to not simply connect farmers and consumers,” said Teeny, “but also to educate consumers about the delights and limits of food from small, local farms — and [to educate] the farmers about what consumers expect in the day and age of online grocery delivery.”
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