By: Michelle Donahue

Online Farmers Markets Increase Access to Good Food for All Income Levels

The argument that locally farmed, organic food is just for entitled snobs may not hold water for much longer.

A big, hairy criticism of the “buy local, eat organic” movement has been that it’s mainly for those with the means to shoulder the higher cost of organics. But the Internet may be changing that.

Consider Rural Resources, a farm-to-customer service in the hilly, remote regions of eastern Tennessee. They run the Mobile Farmers Market, an online delivery service that “connects farmers who need a market for their produce” with consumers looking for local produce. Their website prominently features the fact that they accept government-assistance debit cards—a pretty significant barricade to folks on a very limited budget.

Painted like a little red barn, complete with a white-trimmed horse door, Rural Resources’ produce bus brings locally grown food to its customers every Thursday, and has orders available for pickup on Wednesdays.

More and more options like this exist, where shoppers can go online and make a direct order from a local farm or co-op, similar to Giant Food’s Peapod delivery service. Customers sign up, order exactly what they want or need–with the corresponding ability to stick more closely to a budget–and have their food brought right to their door.

Farmer’s markets still have their place, too. It’s no secret that they’re a hot item—in many cities and suburbs, dozens of new markets have sprouted up, and continue to proliferate as people continue to beat the drum for kale from a mom-and-pop farm.

Like a good little government agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture keeps track of the total number of farmers markets in the country—as of the first week of August 2013, there were 8,133 markets listed in the USDA National Farmers Market Directory (whoops, Aug. 4, 2014 data release: now 8,268 markets.) That’s a 3.6 percent increase over the 2012 total, and a 78 percent increase from the number of markets in 1994 (1,755), when the USDA started keeping track. Oh, and happy National Farmers Market Week!

In American cities, markets are still a pretty new thing, but most are fairly accessible by a large portion of the population—in Washington, D.C. for example, the Washington Post listed 33 markets within city limits for the 2014 season. Many of them also accept food stamps or other government funds, an effort to expand accessibility to have-nots as well.

But what about those folks who live out in the middle of nowhere?Food deserts are as much a problem in rural America as they are in inner cities: areas with high rates of poverty have limited access to fresh food of any kind, let alone organic. Food insecurity is a major problem for a lot of people.

Let us not here belabor the point that convenience stores generally don’t provide many healthy options, but the reality is that a Quik Snak is what a lot of people have within a reasonable driving distance. Rural grocery stores are under ever-more pressure by bulk competitors and sheer cost of doing business, leaving residentsprecious few other options.

There is a demand for farms, and farms there are – everywhere. Pop in a ZIP code at Local Harvest’s site, and you’ll get back a dizzying list of farms and farmers markets in even some pretty remote stretches of America.

Okay, a moment of honesty: residents of Mentone, Texas, the seat of the fifth least populated county in the United States, must still drive two hours to Midland or Carlsbad, New Mexico to get to their nearest farmers market.

Increasingly, rural farms also run community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, and more and more of them seem to be driving towards also accepting SNAP and WIC debit cards. Some do home deliveries of their weekly bag or box of produce, often organic and/or non-GMO (genetically modified organisms), along with other options like milk, eggs, cheese, yogurt and meats. In other programs, customers must go to a designated pick-up point – in the case of poor Loving County, Texas, home of Mentone, the 82 resident souls must still drive two hours to the nearest CSA, Porter Community Farm, to pick up their weekly bag of locally grown produce.

The upside of CSAs is that customers typically get a pre-loaded box of whatever is in season. Downsides include higher up-front costs—an early spring one-time payment in the hundreds of dollars is not uncommon. Also, you flirt with food rotting if you don’t know what to do with a glut of cabbage in June, and run the very real risk of not getting a full share if the weather or pests aren’t cooperating (refunds aren’t typically given for acts of God. But even more of these food vendors are allowing customers to pick and choose to suit their budgets and tastes.

Better living through Internet.