KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The omicron variant and winter storms continue to hurt supply chains and labor shortages across the country, and grocery stores in eastern Tennessee are feeling the effects.
Empty aisles and produce displays mean East Tennessee residents have less access to nutritious food. But Jen Russomanno, an assistant professor of public health at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, is trying to mitigate the problem.
Russomanno and his partner Kim Bryant, the owners of Two Chicks and a Farm, have been producing organic food at fair prices since 2012. Now, with the help of Market Wagon, an online farmers market, Russomanno and Bryant can distribute their products to more people. across the region.
“I think the pandemic has shed light on the problems with food systems in general,” Russomanno said. “We saw early on the shortages of paper products, toilet paper, you know, that sort of thing. But in my opinion, now is when we really see the effects of the pandemic’s food shortages. »
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According to data from Feeding America, 12.7% of East Tennessee residents were food insecure in 2019.
Russomanno, whose research focuses on food access and affordability and chairs the Knoxville-Knox County Food Policy Council, has felt the need for accessible local food since she and Bryant purchased their property. in Jefferson County 10 years ago.
“At the time, there really were no affordable organic foods in Jefferson County,” Russomanno said. “Honestly, I think that was before Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s were even built in Knox County. So we decided to develop our own.
A HOBBY TURNS INTO A CAREER
Russomanno had never been a farmer before, but that didn’t stop her and Bryant, an East Tennessee native whose father owned a farm, from trying their hand. Before they knew it, their hobby had turned into a full-time career.
But Russomanno already had a full-time job at UT, and spending every Saturday at farmers’ markets cut into his already scarce free time. When Market Wagon recruited Two Chicks and a Farm to join its online farmers market program, the answer was an obvious “yes”.
“Their model was very similar to what we were actually doing on our own farm, so it made natural sense because they were covering more territory than we as a small farm were able to do,” Russomanno said.
The farm is known for its variety of Candy onions and offers eggs, Brussels sprouts, lettuce and beets.
The online farmers’ market delivers every Thursday to homes in a 14-county region around Knoxville, enabling more than 100 farmers in the East Tennessee region to reach people they otherwise couldn’t. to serve. Buyers pay a delivery fee of $6.95, although there is no fee for sellers to join the marketplace.
ONLINE MODEL MAKES IT EASIER TO GET LOCAL GOODS
Russomanno is a big fan of the delivery model because it makes it easier for housebound people or busy parents to get local produce and reduces reliance on corporate food systems.
“I think moving towards a model based on local systems is something that I’ve been in favor of for a very long time,” Russomanno said. “We put a lot of eggs in the basket of our larger systems of, you know, the federal government, the federal food supply, you know, the bigger chain food supply. I think it is possible to use local food systems to alleviate access issues.
Traditional farmers’ markets are usually only held once a week, which limits the number of people who can attend.
“If someone has to work … or has other commitments, or whatever, sometimes they’re just not accessible to people,” Russomanno said.
The online farmers’ market lets Russomanno know exactly how many orders she needs to fulfill for the week, taking the guesswork out of a market.
According to Nick Carter, co-founder and CEO of Market Wagon, the company serves 33 cities across the South and Midwest, helping small, family-owned operations create viable income streams from their farms.
“I would have been the fourth generation farmer on the land I grew up on,” Carter said. “The impacts of what we’re seeing now in our supermarkets and our industrial foods has been the consolidation and commodification of agriculture, which meant, I mean, I had no farms left to be a farmer on.”
East Tennessee has been one of Market Wagon’s fastest growing markets with thousands of active customers and at least 100 food producers.
“Why aren’t more people buying local food? The reason is that it is the hardest to find. Carter said. “What we set out to do with Market Wagon is to use e-commerce and last mile delivery and technology to make buying local food as easy as possible. By creating this convenience factor and connecting directly to an all-local food supply chain, we are now putting local food producers on a level playing field with the big guys.
Dan Klein, community relations manager at Market Wagon, says Two Chicks and a Farm sells between 250 and 350 items a week through Market Wagon, depending on supply and demand depending on the season.
“Being able to provide local, locally sourced food all year round is something that I think really should be a larger model across the country,” Russomanno said. “Again, I think the pandemics have really highlighted that we can’t rely on those supply chains because they’re broken.
“You can get something that’s, like, right on your doorstep, and you’re taking out the shipping, the packaging, all that stuff. I just think it gives people a lot more flexibility to get the type of food than they obviously wish to obtain.
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