Online grocery sales in the United States are up 233 percent since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, according to eMarketer. Farmers market home-delivery platforms are benefitting from that spike, and although many consumers have returned to in-person shopping, digital farmers markets are continuing to grow.
Digital farmers markets connect small farms and independent food brands directly to retail customers. This gives farmers access to a broader market and allows consumers to buy fresh, locally produced food.
“Many people care about building a more resilient local food system and supporting their local producers, but in the past that has been hard to do,” Simon Huntley, founder and CEO of Harvie, tells Food Tank. Harvie is one of many online platforms bringing fresh food directly from farm to doorstep.
Michael Winik, co-founder of the New York based company OurHarvest, believes that digital farmers markets are here to stay.
“While the initial hyper shift to online has slowed a bit, the genie is out of the bottle there and it’s not going to stop,” Winik tells Food Tank. “I do believe that online grocery is going to become an increasingly important part of people’s routine.”
Several pandemic-related factors contributed to the sudden growth of companies like Harvie and OurHarvest. To reduce virus spread, customers limited trips to the grocery store and found home-delivery alternatives. Food supply chains, disrupted by the pandemic, left gaps that people chose to fill locally. And many consumers began to prioritize purchases from local farmers.
“Supporting local food producers was an important way that people got to feel they had some agency to help inspire positive change during these challenging times,” Huntley tells Food Tank. “Eating healthier, local food was another way people could take some control in the face of all that was happening in the public health world.”
In January, Harvie launched a survey about the effects of the pandemic on consumers’ food buying habits. The company finds that 76 percent of respondents have an increased desire to support local farmers and suppliers into the future. Additionally, 58 percent say they are interested in home delivered groceries, with 35 percent saying that interest will continue after the pandemic.
Harvie operates 150 markets nationally, and while some households are based in rural areas, the company’s most successful programs are in and around urban regions. Harvie’s customers, primarily between the ages of 35 to 55 also have children and tend to be more financially affluent. OurHarvest, operating in New York City and its suburbs, has a similar target demographic, marketing toward young professionals and families with small children who may be pressed for time.
According to Huntley, working in urban areas puts digital farmers markets in direct competition with food delivery giants like Amazon Fresh. He explains that Harvie is building off of Amazon Fresh’s model, but in a way that allows consumers to be more socially conscious.
“While Amazon has built an impressive service for consumers, there is very little transparency in the supply chain,” Huntley tells Food Tank. “We’re making it easier for customers to support the local businesses that they love, but are set up for failure in a food system that currently props up large corporations.”
These platforms may be positioned to continue growing as they carve out a portion of the market for customers who want a more convenient way to buy locally-sourced foods. Harvie, for example, has not seen a major drop off in customers since COVID-19 restrictions have eased, but instead reports a steady growth in its customer base.
“The pandemic has shown us the value of community, caring for our neighbor, and staying healthy. This has accelerated shifts in the ways families are sourcing their food,” Huntley tells Food Tank. “Now it’s up to farmers, producers, and small businesses to harness this momentum to give consumers what they want and create lasting change in our food system.”
Photo courtesy of Brad Stallcup, Unsplash