As Amazon gets into the food business with the planned purchase of Whole Foods, there’s a quiet, local food revolution that’s been simmering on the back burner.
Virtual farmers markets selling mostly local produce grown by smaller-scale, local farms have popped up across the country.
It’s like going to your town’s farmers market — but online.
“The food comes from just down the road and is harvested the same day we receive it. And then it’s delivered the next day to consumers’ homes,” says Fresh Harvest co-founder Zac Harrison. “We are talking to anywhere from 15 to 20 different local farmers every week.”
The Georgia-based company, founded in 2012, delivers fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, eggs and other perishables to about 2,000 customers every week in the Atlanta area. Twenty percent of its goods are not local — for instance, bananas and citrus that aren’t native to Georgia.
With traditional grocery stores, produce often travels from far away — across the country, even the world– to get to your table, Harrison says.
That means the produce is “sitting in a distribution center for a couple of days and then rides in a truck for five days, and then comes into another distribution center and then gets delivered to the store,” he says. “So the difference could be not just days, but a couple of weeks of freshness and nutrients.”
In the case of Fresh Harvest, produce is picked on farms and driven to the company’s warehouse the same day. An assembly line of about 10 people pull together a basket for distribution.
“The taste, the freshness is incomparable to something, a tomato, that’s been sitting at the grocery store for two weeks,” says customer Kimberly Perez.
Her 3-year-old daughter is a big fan.
“When my daughter sees that we are getting a box that week, if we happen to be home, she usually is impatiently opening the door and running down the sidewalk to meet our box. And if there are berries that she likes, she literally thanks the box and says, ‘Thank you box for giving me strawberries this week,'” says Perez.
“What’s great is that she’s just getting exposure to it as opposed to snacks. Nobody needs to teach a kid to like cookies but you might need to teach your kids to like green vegetables.”
Americans aren’t eating their veggies
Adults may need to be taught to like vegetables, too.
At least 75% of Americans aren’t eating the recommended daily dose of fruits and veggies, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.
The CDC recommends at least two and a half cups of vegetables and a cup and a half of fruit a day to reduce the risk for heart disease, stroke and some cancers. Eating fruits and vegetables also helps manage body weight.
Jennifer McDaniel, nutritionist and spokesperson for The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says online farmers markets can help adults change their eating habits.
“Online farmers markets remove two main barriers to fruit and vegetable consumption: inconvenience/time getting to a farmers market and lack of access for individuals who do not have farmers markets in their nearby communities,” says McDaniel.
According to the Food Marketing Institute, the share of online grocery shopping is expected to reach 20% in the next seven years, bringing in $100 billion in annual consumer sales.
Meanwhile there’s also a huge growth in the number of physical US farmers markets selling directly to consumers.
The US Department of Agriculture says they’ve quadrupled since the 1990s to more than 8,000.
The USDA’s website says locally-grown foods are important because they “enhance the rural economy, the environment, food access and nutrition and strengthen agricultural producers and markets.”
Plus, McDaniel says, the sooner your food hits your place from the farm the better.
“Fresh produce, on average, loses 45% of its nutritional value from being picked to being placed onto grocery store shelves. A locally harvest food, that was distributed locally maintains a higher percent of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals when it is enjoyed within 24 hours. For example, after 24 hours, spinach can lose up to 50-90% of its vitamin A and beans eaten one week later lose 50% of its nutrients.”
How online farmers markets work
For most online farmers markets, you go online and click the box of goodies you want.
In the case of the Perez family, she gets what’s called the “Georgia-grown basket.”
For $39, a large container is delivered to her door every week full of seasonal produce.
“And usually I always have a little bit extra when the following week comes around,” she says.
“We usually get an e-mail telling us what is potentially coming in our box the following week and I can add to it or make some swaps, so sometimes I don’t need more cucumbers and I might delete those.”
The day CNN visited the Perez family, it received a cornucopia of stuff from local farmers wrapped in quaint brown bag sacks — zucchini, several ears of corn, two overflowing bags of red and yellow baby tomatoes, radishes, kale, mushrooms and yellow, red and purple (who knew?) peppers.
“You definitely get more for your money,” says Perez.
“I find it cost-effective if you are a person who’s going out and you’re committed to buying organic produce. It can get really expensive out there and you don’t really know how long that produce has been sitting around.”
Harrison says the price of their produce, including fees and delivery, is cheaper than Whole Foods and comparable to grocery chains such as Publix and Kroger in Georgia.
“But you’re actually receiving the convenience of the product being delivered to your home and all the produce is guaranteed fresh.”
Not just about the food, but the source
“The grocery industry has operated a certain way since the ’50s,” says Michael Winik, the CEO of New York-based online farmers market OurHarvest.com. “There’s been no real innovation in terms of how people get their food, and the supply chain, since the dawn of the supermarket.”
Winik and Harrison say by cutting out some of the middlemen in the grocery store process they can give small farmers a better wholesale price for their produce than grocery chains.
“Local farms are growing really delicious products to sell on their farm stand. They’re not growing to be the cheapest possible product or to last the longest on the supermarket shelf. They are growing to be more delicious products,” says Winik.
“I think Americans as a culture, we don’t get enough fruits and vegetables because you don’t know how good they can taste,” says Perez.
Both Fresh Harvest and Our Harvest carry food from farms that have sustainable land practices.
“You’re not depleting the soil by asking it to grow nutrients for you over and over and over again,” says Harrison. “We believe that (sustainable farming) long term is a better solution for actually feeding more and more people that are arriving on this planet.”
For Perez, buying her produce from online farmers markets is about more than the money, taste and farming practices. It’s about eating what’s harvested in “your own backyard.”
“What grows in Florida does not grow in New York City and what grows in your city does not necessarily grow in Georgia,” says Perez. “So it does alter our cuisine. I mean I think that is absolutely what it means to eat seasonally and locally. You need to respond to it. Nature is providing for you.”