There’s nothing like a pandemic, closed restaurants and masked lines outside grocery stores to make Oregonians rethink the food system.
In response to the Covid-19 outbreak, urban consumers, rural producers and mid-line distributors had to adapt on the fly.
Local Ocean Seafood, a Newport restaurant shut down by the virus, began selling boxed, uncooked seafood meals for two complete with a recipe and seasonings. “DockBox” sales kept owner Laura Anderson’s employees busy and provided a continued outlet for 50 to 60 local fishing boats that had lost key markets.
The Portland Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition (PACSAC) reported a 25 to 30 percent increase in harvest share sales this spring compared to last year. Some consumers turned to CSAs because they were worried about grocery store crowds and the availability or even safety of “factory food,” PACSAC Executive Director Holly Hutchason said.
Under the CSA model, consumers pre-pay for a share of a farm’s harvest.
The spike steadied the coalition’s 81 farms, most relatively small, that sell and deliver produce and protein directly to consumers.
Marion Acres near Hillsboro, which had opened an on-farm store only four months before the pandemic hit, saw retail sales of its pastured chicken, beef and pork skyrocket. Wholesale purchases by restaurants, stores and buying clubs dropped from 60 percent of the farm’s business to 10 percent as virus closures took hold, but the retail increase and higher profit margin more than made up for the loss. “It shifted itself,” co-owner Geoff Scott said of the farm’s business model.
Oregon’s 127 farmers markets, a $63 million annual outlet for hundreds of farmers, ranchers and anglers, reopened with a list of statewide guidelines that included a requirement to appoint a social distancing officer.
Market managers were told vendors had to wear masks and couldn’t provide free samples. Vendors who couldn’t maintain a safe distance from customers, such as face painters and masseuses, weren’t allowed. Some markets encouraged online pre-orders, banned craft vendors and live music, marked dedicated entrance and exit points and maintained one-way foot traffic through stalls.
At The Redd on Salmon Street, a Portland food hub that helps small- to mid-scale producers store, process, develop and deliver food to urban consumers, the operative term became “pivot.”
Many “ag of the middle” producers had tapped into Portland’s vibrant restaurant scene or sold to schools or institutions, and were left scrambling as those buyers reduced purchases or closed entirely. Many farmers, ranchers and fishermen lost 50 percent of their market when restaurants closed, said Emma Sharer, The Redd campus manager.
“Everybody was stunned at first,” Sharer said.
“What are you left with?” said Tyson Rasor, fisheries and food systems director for Ecotrust, a Portland nonprofit that operates The Redd. “Where can you move product? Can you move product?”
Rather than let food go to waste, The Redd hosted a Feed the Mass project that served 385 free meals the first week. Organizers temporarily used the facility’s Community Kitchen to prepare meals. The Redd expected to reopen it for demonstrations and as a place for food entrepreneurs to develop products.
Food producers returned to direct-to-consumer sales if possible, said Maia Hardy, Ecotrust’s “Ag of the Middle” manager.
Many producers had already nailed the CSA business model and were using Portland’s restaurant scene to scale up, she said. With restaurants closed, they pivoted back to selling directly to consumers, Hardy said.
The abrupt changes up and down the food chain, coupled with consumer behavior, caused many people to reconsider the entire system, Hardy and other observers said. Whether that increased awareness leads to permanent change is anyone’s guess, however.
“What happens after Covid, when the restaurants are open and the store shelves are kicking again?” Hardy asked. “Of course, we don’t know.”
“It totally could be a wake up,” said Sharer, The Redd campus manager. “Everyone in our society is forced to think about it now.”