Local Vegetables Might Be Coming to Your Mailbox Soon

WWF has suggested that USPS team up with farmers to deliver surplus produce.

box of vegetables
Farmer carrying organic vegetables in box for delivery.

Getty Images/Monty Rakusen

Imagine if your week's supply of vegetables came with the mail. This could happen if a new market analysis by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) comes to fruition. The analysis, published on February 24, suggests that there's a tremendous opportunity for farmers to team up with the United States Postal Service (USPS) to provide surplus vegetables to customers who may want better access to fresh food.

This initiative, which WWF has named Farmers Post, is still in hypothetical form, but the proposed model sounds solid and convincing. Farmers would be able to package surplus produce in standard-sized boxes provided by USPS. These would be picked up and delivered the next day within existing delivery zones, no further than two postal codes away from the farm, making it truly local food. 

Julia Kurnik, director of innovation startups for WWF’s Markets Institute and co-author of the analysis, said in a press release, "Access to fresh fruits and vegetables should not be considered a luxury, but across the US, food deserts and higher-cost delivery services routinely put these essential foods out of reach. Pairing this reality with the extensive loss of viable food on our nation’s farms, Farmers Post offers a win-win solution to combat on-farm food loss, while making produce delivery more affordable and accessible."

Customers, many of whom have started using grocery delivery services in the past year, could get fresh produce delivered for less than what they're currently paying. This is because the USPS route already exists, has a broad reach across all demographics and rural/urban locations, and the cost of produce would be competitive, as it's direct-to-consumer and free from supply markups incurred by retailers or processors. Instead of the CSA (community-supported agriculture) model, which requires full payment at the start of the year, this could be a more affordable week-by-week payment.

The analysis says, "The USPS already provides standard boxes for free to businesses, so the only added shipping cost farmers may need to incorporate on top of delivery is likely to be padding or other packaging based on the fragility of the produce." Because its delivery fleet does not include refrigerated trucks, the selection of food products wouldn't be as broad as a regular grocery delivery service, but there is still much that could be distributed within a 24-hour window.

Using USPS would improve accessibility for those people who have limited mobility, do not own cars to do CSA pickups at a central location, or live in a rural location that does not have access to the ugly/surplus produce services that are growing rapidly in urban areas. These alternative food suppliers are often known only to environmentally-minded shoppers, but USPS's generally positive reputation (the analysis says it's "viewed favorably" by 91% of the population, according to Pew Research) could be a bridge to accessing a new clientele that could become quite enthusiastic about buying local produce.

Farmers could benefit by diversifying their income streams – something that's become more noticeably important after a difficult pandemic year that saw markets for restaurants, schools, and other institutions shrivel overnight. It's a way for them to become CSA farmers of a sort, minus the added burden of orchestrating the CSA set-up themselves. There are many details that have yet to be worked out, such as whether people would subscribe or be able to choose what they receive, but these are all manageable details. 

mail delivery vans
Getty Images/mcdomx

As for the environmental implications of adding vegetable deliveries to the mail, WWF's analysis says it's an improvement over people making multiple trips to the store on their own. 

"Greenhouse gas emissions from trips to the store for grocery purchasing are typically assessed via vehicle miles traveled (VMT). By taking advantage of pre-established routes and thereby reducing transportation costs with fewer trips to the grocery store, as well as reduced distribution costs for farmers, Farmers Post could reduce VMTs. Environmental impacts are potentially further improved through reduced on-farm crop loss by enabling a new outlet for farmers to sell product that may have been destined for restaurants or food service. Further study is required to fully understand environmental impacts, but the opportunity is promising."

Such an initiative could help USPS, too, as it has been facing severe funding challenges. The analysis suggests that if 2-3% of the American population started using Farmers Post, it would create $1.5 billion in annual revenue for USPS alone (farmer revenue would be additional to that). "With a 10% market penetration, annual revenues could jump to nearly $6B." While Farmers Post isn't enough to fix the entire funding shortfall, it gives USPS an interesting opportunity to diversify its income streams, as well. 

Kurnik told Treehugger that USPS has been made aware of this business case. "[It] provided background information that helped WWF’s Markets Institute develop our analysis but USPS is not formally involved in the project at this time." 

It's a fascinating idea that could be a real game-changer for farmers, home cooks, and postal workers alike, as well as in the global fight against food waste.

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