Turning on a Dime: St. Louis Food Producers Innovate to Reach Consumers
In the widening wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, “pivot” seems to be the word of the moment as business of all types struggle and strive to reimagine how they do what they do. The St. Louis food industry is no exception. Locally, many food-based programs as well as individual producers and distributors have revamped their operations in response to the crisis.
Known & Grown STL, an initiative of the St. Louis Food Policy Coalition, which is led by the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, launched in June 2019. The program was initially meant to spread awareness to the community about who the environmentally friendly farmers are within 150 miles of St. Louis and where their food is available.
“The main sources of income for farmers in the program are farmers’ markets and restaurants. Without those being able to take as much food in years past, we’re really shifting our focus to figure out how to help the farmers thrive and stay in business and keep their crops moving,” says Rae Miller, local food coordinator for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.
Known & Grown, which includes more than 40 farmers, is working with its local partners like Fair Shares CCSA to get food out in new ways, like home delivery and curbside pickup, as well as fostering public awareness. The organization has spreadsheets on its website that list the farms involved in the program and how their food can be accessed as well as which of the restaurants that buy from these farmers are still open for delivery and pickup.
Miller says farmers interested in participating in Known & Grown can fill out the farmer interest form online. The process usually involves a site visit, though these are currently on hold. Rae says they’re looking at alternative ways of onboarding new farms if socially distancing measures continue.
“Life is definitely different today,” says James Forbes, co-founder of urban farming company Good Life Growing. Pre-COVID-19, Good Life’s main business was selling its produce, grown on plots in St. Louis City, directly to restaurants, but that part of the business has gradually dried up as quarantine efforts have increased. “We saw it happen in slow motion. It’s insane how delicate the industry web was” he says, adding that “no one could have planned for this.”
Much of the company’s community outreach efforts have been curtailed as well, though Forbes says the company is working on ways to continue these online. Good Life is also searching for more viable urban spots it can convert to growing space. Its main focus now, though, is retail.
“We’re focusing attention on the grocery store [Old North Provisions] and have switched to more of a home grocery delivery model,” he says. “We’re staying ahead of things and trying to stay nimble.”
Forbes says many chefs have started to band together to supply meal kits to consumers, and Good Life is supplying some of those initiatives, as well as letting chefs use its commercial kitchen space to prep and package food—like chef Mike Miller of Kitchen Kulture, who is using the facilities to produce food for his Field to Fire project.
Image courtesy of Attilio D’Agostino.
“We normally depend on volunteers to help pack food, but we have to rely on staff now,” says Lucinda Perry, director of strategic initiatives for Operation Food Search, as many of those volunteers are in at-risk categories or other or otherwise unable to participate. Despite this, she says OFS is continuing to focus on getting food into the community.
The timeline of the organization’s summer food program for kids, which usually begins after the end of the school year, has been moved up, and OFS is also also partnering with select branches of the St. Louis County Library and The Center For Youth On The Rise for drive-through meal pick-up from 10 a.m. to noon on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. (A full list of these locations can be found at operationfoodsearch.org/covid-19-meal-map.)
Before the outbreak, OFS was talking with farmers about implementing a “gleaning” program, where “ugly” or excess produce would be donated to the organization. Perry says that initiative is expected to kick off in the near future. In the meantime, Perry says OFS continues to receive donations from grocery stores like Schnucks and Dierbergs along with distributors like Sysco Foods and US Foods.
“It’s been invaluable during this time,” she says. Perry also singled out chef Rex Hale, a longtime advocate for local farmers, for his ongoing efforts at putting producers and distributors together.
“We’ve picked up lots of produce that otherwise would’ve been wasted thanks to him,” she says.
Autumn Sij, who runs Such & Such Farm in DeSoto, Missouri, with her husband, Dave, says they’re now selling all of their wares exclusively on the farm’s online store, which luckily was already up and running before the outbreak. She says orders can be placed via social media as well. Weekly deliveries are being made to a rotating series of sites for customer pickup, such as World’s Fair Donuts, in an effort to limit their exposure.
Sij says Such & Such is still planning on going forward with its CSA partnership with Beast Butcher & Block in The Grove, The Beast Box, which is scheduled to kick off in mid-May. Home delivery of the shares will be made available if stay-at-home orders are still in effect.
“It was hectic and scary the first couple of weeks,” Sij says of the crisis. “But the plants are still coming up and the animals still need to be fed. Mother Nature doesn’t stop for anything.”
[Editor’s note: The CurbsideSTL website offers a Farm-to-Home section that lists farm-fresh produce, dairy and meats. It’s brought to you through a partnership between Novel creative agency and Known & Grown STL to provide the community with access to healthy, safe, sustainable food.]
Featured image courtesy of P. Long.