As Supermarkets Feel Hazardous and Sparse, Small Farms Deliver - Press "Enter" to skip to content

As Supermarkets Feel Hazardous and Sparse, Small Farms Deliver

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LOS ANGELES — For over a decade, Jennifer Field Piette has put together boxes of local fruits, vegetables and various pantry staples from California — Koda Farms rice, pale blue pastured eggs, crusty loaves of sourdough — and delivered them to people’s doorsteps in Los Angeles.

Three weeks ago, the customer base for her business, Narrative Food, leapt from 85 people a week to 185. A week later, that number shot up to about 350.

“I think there’s a wake-up call going on, in terms of food systems,” Ms. Piette said. “I hope it’s not a blip.”

The potential danger of a crowded supermarket during the coronavirus pandemic, for both shoppers and workers, and the fragility of the industrial food supply, have people all over the city frantically looking for reliable, low-contact or no-contact groceries.

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For those who can afford the weekly cost of a subscription, specialized services like Narrative Food (where charges start at $43 for a box of vegetables) are increasingly popular. Farms around Los Angeles are also rising to the occasion, adopting more direct distribution models for local, seasonal foods in a time of crisis.

Thao Family Farms, a small farm in Fresno that usually sells its specialty produce to restaurants, including the Culver City Tex-Mex destination Amacita, and at local farmers’ markets, is among many now packing up prepaid boxes.

The boxes help make up for the farm’s lost business, and get home cooks what they urgently need.

For $40, shoppers can order a mix of sprouting broccoli, Shanghai bok choy, green garlic, Chinese mustard greens, fennel and more, then pick it up at a handful of markets and restaurants across the city. The vegetable box is just one of the items on the Middle Eastern restaurant Kismet’s new grocery menu, along with wine and beer.

Underwood Family Farms in Ventura County has started shipping produce boxes anywhere in the United States except Hawaii, via FedEx — this week’s are full of black kale, purple carrots, unripe avocados and tangerines.

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But some shoppers are prepaying and driving to the farm, then waiting safely in their car with the trunk popped open, while the food is dispatched.

At the Altadena Farmers’ Market, people can place all of their orders online, picking and choosing among local cheeses, honeys and other foods from a number of vendors for curbside pickup, in a kind of custom-built, no-contact community-supported agriculture, or C.S.A.

The market’s new menu also includes an $18 donation of fresh citrus, berries and vegetables that goes directly to seniors who live nearby.

Though plenty of grocery stores, including Albertsons, Vons and Whole Foods Markets, have reserved shopping hours for older people and those with compromised immune systems, many of them don’t feel safe making the trip, handling items in the aisles, or even paying.

“I’ve had regular clients just redirect their subscriptions to their elderly parents,” Ms. Piette said.

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And at a time when Amazon and Instacart workers are walking off the job in fear and in protest, and both food and delivery workers are on the front lines of the pandemic, people are eager to know who is working behind the scenes, and under what conditions.

Joy Brooks is an owner, and the operations manager, of Sublime Delivery Service, a small courier company in Southern California that works with about 20 drivers, delivering food, pharmaceuticals and other necessities. She said she is looking to hire at least 10 more drivers in the coming weeks to keep up with demand.

Ms. Brooks makes many of the deliveries herself. Last Sunday, she and her team dropped more than 300 food boxes around Los Angeles, from Beverly Hills and Santa Clarita to Cypress Park and Pasadena.

“Right now, food deliveries are our highest demand,” she said, referring both to the provisions boxes from Narrative Food and to meal kits.

As more restaurants close, small food producers lose their regular orders, and Ms. Piette is scheduling more pickups to get that food to home cooks, including bread from Bub and Grandma’s, and fresh noodles from Semolina Artisanal Pasta.

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“You don’t usually quintuple your volume in a few days,” said Ms. Piette, who was racing to keep up.

At the company’s commercial kitchen space in Chatsworth, in the San Fernando Valley, where workers packed boxes, one staffer was now entirely dedicated to enforcing distance between employees, frequent hand-washing, sanitizing and other crucial hygiene practices.

Meanwhile, the orders for more produce boxes, and more local foods, kept coming in. “I wish it wasn’t a tragedy that was changing things,” Ms. Piette said.

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