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The Local Food Report
As we re-imagine our relationships to what we eat, Local Food Report creator Elspeth Hay takes us to the heart of the local food movement to talk with growers, harvesters, processors, cooks, policy makers and visionaries

COVID-19 is Reshaping Supply and Demand

Elspeth Hay
Local oyster farms are struggling to move product with so many restaurants closed.

With many restaurants shuttered and others limited to take-out, we’re eating and cooking at home more than ever before. Plus, there’s panic buying. For some local food sectors, this has meant an increase in business, for others, a steep decline. But across the board, it means meant change. Eric Glasgow runs Grey Barn Farm on Martha’s Vineyard, which includes a general farm stand and a specialty cheese operation that also wholesales to grocery stores. He explains how supply chain disruptions are happening.

“Say one of our grocery store customers they didn’t want to stop carrying our cheese but when all of a sudden grocery stores got overwhelmed and people started going crazy buying ‘essentials’ what happened was is basically their whole distribution system got messed up suddenly there really wasn’t room on the truck to put specialty cheese.”

Eric says this is just one piece—it’s not just trucks—it’s also grocery store employees being reassigned from say the cheese department to stocking shelves. My husband—Alex Hay, who runs Wellfleet Shellfish Company—has seen some of the same issues in the wholesale seafood industry—in this case because of international supply chain interruptions.

“Well I think people are really starting to understand where our product goes and unfortunately how very little of it actually gets consumed in the immediate area. So we are heavily dependent on moving a lot of this product from here to other sources across the country, you know export it, what have you. Those numbers where we see that we export upwards of 70% of our domestic catches here is those aren’t lies that’s the reality and that’s what we’re seeing here and that’s why everything’s basically come to a big halt.”

A lot of seafood is also eaten at restaurants. Restaurants are closed not just locally but around the country and even around the world, so that whole segment of the seafood market has basically just disappeared. Alex says wholesale seafood dealers are reporting sales that are down an average of 70 to 100 percent.

Meanwhile, there’s been an uptick in demand for local meat—and changes in what customers want to buy. Eric Glasgow explains.

“I’ve seen people buying cuts that have historically kind of struggled like you know I always get some larger pork shoulders or big full size pork butts and you know we sell them but a lot of times they go to restaurants and a lot of people don’t want to make a commitment to buy a 10-pound piece of pork right it’s a big deal. We’re not really having any difficulty with that now.”

Rebecca Westgate coordinates Barnstable County’s Buy Fresh Buy Local Cape Cod program. She says she’s hearing from her farm member about huge increases in demand for local meat and eggs, and in general, that small farms and farm stands are selling out.

”The Cape farms are quite small compared to the other off Cape farms so the majority of our farmers have never really relied on a wholesale market plan to make ends meet and selling directly to consumers is where their business is. And also I’m hearing more people are comfortable going to a small farm stand or coordinating a pick up of food at a farm or business rather than face the social distancing challenges at crowded grocery stores.

Food suppliers are adapting as quickly as they can. But even when they see a need or an opportunity to fill a supply gap, it’s not necessarily as simple as just jumping in. Here’s Eric Glasgow again.

“There’s stuff I could be theoretically doing like if I wanted to take my bones and make beef stock or if I wanted to render lard and do you know jars of lard, like I spoke to the local board of health I can’t do it because she can’t inspect me and approve a safety plan right now.”

Rebecca Westgate says despite these challenges, she does see a silver lining.

“People are realizing that these local farms and smaller businesses are essential. So I really think people are now finding that shopping local—it’s not leaving it up to companies located out of the state, across the side of the country to supply them with what they need.”

In a lot of ways, we’re doing a mass experiment in eating closer to home. It hasn’t been smooth or easy, but it is revealing. It offers an opportunity for all of us—food suppliers and shoppers—to ask ourselves: what do we want to hold onto? And what do we want to change?

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.