Supply Chain: Spreading the Love with Farm Fresh’s Market Mobile

For years, this non-profit has been widening public access to fresh, local products across New England.

By | Chowder |

It’s easy to assume that just because something was grown within a 50-mile radius of where you’re standing, it should be a breeze to get that arugula, or that fresh cheese, or that Sungold tomato, on your plate at your favorite watering hole. It’s local! Simplifying things by going to our neighbors, instead of a far-flung locale, is the whole point. Right?

The short answer is that in real life, with its busy schedules and invoices and fluctuating markets, those products are not always so accessible. It needs a way to get to you, or you to it.

Enter Farm Fresh Rhode Island, a non-profit that’s been in the getting-it-to-you business since 2004. Their mission? Widening public access to fresh, local foods across the region. In addition to running farmer’s markets and nutrition education programs, they also operate the equivalent of a chef’s proverbial candy store: Market Mobile.

“We’re very lucky that there are so many great farms and chefs in the area that have been working together for years,” says Hannah Mellion, Farm Fresh’s program director of food system enterprises. “Starting in 2007 and 2008, we had farmers and chefs start coming to us and saying ‘We’re really looking to work together, but there’s got to be an easier way.’”

Small farms want to work with restaurants, but making deliveries on a weekly basis is sometimes next to impossible, she explains. Chefs want to work with those farms, but it gets difficult having so many people show up at the back door clutching individual invoices.

This need for a middle man—someone to smooth the transactional hiccups and bridge the gap between the field and the kitchen’s walk-in—was the genesis for Market Mobile, which launched in 2009. These days, they serve anywhere from 50 small farms and more than 100 restaurant clients across New England on a weekly basis.

One such client is jm Curley chef Sam Monsour, who says the ability to order from such a wide swath of producers at one time makes working with Farm Fresh an obvious choice. Not only that, but by joining the growing collaborative of chefs and farmers through his orders, he’s furthering a hyper-local connection with those who make the kind of food he wants to cook possible.

“You pick out a few things here and a few things there, and before you know it, you’ve met the minimum,” he says. “I’ve never heard of most of these farms, and I’ve never seen them on any menus around Boston. I think it’s in everybody’s interest to change that.”

Diversifying the landscape of purveyors is something that has become increasingly more important as seasonality, and a subsequent demand for the locally grown, reaches a fever pitch. Market Mobile lays the region’s bounty at the digital feet of the chef, all just one click away. They deliver twice a week, and give a rare 24-hour window to place orders.

“The variety of products that are available to them is crucial,” Mellion says. That being said, they do try to maintain a balanced mix of farms and offerings so that it’s worthwhile for everyone to be a part of the program. Presenting too many versions of the same thing helps no one.

Products range anywhere from staples—fruits, vegetables, meat, cheese, eggs, and dairy—to the specialty items like sodas and seltzers from a bottler in North Providence. By the end of the year, they expect about $2 million worth of local food will be moving through their entire system, a massive increase over their first couple of years.

“Demand really builds supply in this case,” Mellion says. “The more demand there is for products in the winter, the more farmers are putting up greenhouses and experimenting with extending their season. It’s great to see so many farms be able to do that.”

“This is about how you get your food everyday,” she adds. “Having a system that makes it so easy helps local, seasonal food becomes the norm.”

Mellion describes Farm Fresh as a “food hub,” an organization that manages and encourages the distribution of local products in an effort to strengthen the area’s food system. A quick Google search of that term brings up millions of results, crisscrossing the whole country, city by city.

“We’re seeing a growing interest in food hubs right now, and what an alternative distribution system really looks like. It’s been great to show that this is economically viable,” she says. “Plus, helping farms keep farming is really wonderful, and so is giving people a way to engage with our food system, whether directly or indirectly.”

To take advantage of Farm Fresh’s massive directory for all things locally grown, visit farmfresh.org.