How one quick errand every Sunday can bring you enough local food to last the week
By Brian P.J. Cronin, (Recycled from April/May 2016, Edition 15 )
Photographed by Jackson Summers
The blessing of living in the Hudson Valley is that you are surrounded by an embarrassment of agricultural and culinary riches, with many of the finest fruits, vegetables, meats, artisanal breads and dairy products in the country being produced right in your zip code. The curse of living in the Hudson Valley is that it remains shockingly difficult to take advantage of those products on a consistent and thorough basis without investing a significant amount of your time.
Even in the blaze of summer, when CSA shares are bursting, farmers’ market tables are overflowing and every supermarket in the Valley can be counted on featuring at least a few home-grown products, trying to make sure that as many of your food dollars and calories are spent on local food can mean shopping on a daily basis at locations far and wide.
If you commute down to New York City every weekday and/or have kids, just finding the time to get food into the kitchen, any food at all, is a heroic achievement in and of itself. In those cases, it’s less about “How many miles did this potato travel to get here?” and more about “Just grab whatever potatoes they have, there’s no way we’re making another stop on the way home.” That’s how we all end up, no matter how good our intentions, with shopping carts full of apples from across the country, garlic from across the globe and ground beef from god knows where.
Patricia Wind and Clifford Platt think they’ve figured out how to help locavores whose spirit is willing but whose day planners are weak. One hand-off, once a week, to get you everything you need in order to eat fresh, local food for the next seven days. If you can’t get to the farmers’ market, the F2T Box is the closest you can get to having the farmers’ market come to you.
It was at the farmers’ market where Wind first sowed the seeds of the idea that would bloom into the F2T Box. She spent her weekends for the last four years working farmers’ markets for Bread Alone, the celebrated local chain that jumpstarted the Hudson Valley’s artisanal bread revolution over 30 years ago. When Wind started working the markets, business was good. The locavore movement was exploding in the Valley, and the markets were mobbed. But as their popularity increased, so did the numbers of vendors.
Soon, there wasn’t enough business to go around. Farmers found themselves working several markets a week in order to bring in the same amount of profit that they used to be able to make by just doing one. On some days, some of her fellow vendors were just hoping to make enough money to buy gas in order to get home.
The idea and spark for their business came about as the result of two people musing about their backgrounds and life experiences, and finding a common interest in the Hudson Valley farmers’ struggle to compete and succeed in a marketplace where it seems that only far-away, big factory farms thrive. What began as a friendly discussion soon turned to a mutual challenge to use their collective backgrounds, experiences and problem-solving capabilities to find a solution.
They had a lot to bring to the table. In addition to her work in wine distribution and farmers’ markets, Wind trained at the Culinary Institute of America and had degrees in hospitality management and computer science. Platt grew up farming, got a degree in engineering, spent ten years selling farm products in retail and wholesale markets as a farm owner, and then went to law school. They knew all about the problems that farmers have finding enough customers for their harvests, and how difficult it was for chefs, despite their enthusiasm for working with local products, to consistently get their hands on enough of them to work with week in and week out.
The idea seemed so obvious that Wind and Platt were surprised that others had not tried to do the same thing. “There were web-based companies that only focused on the technology side of it,” explained Wind. “Because technology is what’s sexy and trendy. But food is a tangible item. You still have to get it from Point A to Point B. The other companies only handled the transaction aspect of it, leaving the buyers and sellers to figure out how to move the products. That doesn’t work. We knew that the guts of our operation would be about trucking. So even though everyone latches onto the app because it’s so cool, at the end of the day, we’re really a trucking company.”
Wind and Platt quietly worked on the app for a year, while Wind continued to do market research by asking farmers at the markets what their biggest problems were in moving their products, and which of the many time-intensive practices their job entailed they’d like to get rid of. When the app was finally launched and Wind went back to those farmers to ask if they’d like to take part, many of them were shocked.
“A lot of them looked at me funny, like ‘Aren’t you the girl who sells the bread?’” she recalled.
The Farms2Tables app currently connects about 65 farms throughout the Hudson Valley to wholesale accounts—mainly restaurants, but also grocery stores, schools, nursing homes and corporate dining—from Brooklyn to Albany. While some chefs love being able to spend one day a week driving around the Valley to check in with farmers and pick up what they need, most don’t have the time. The app allows them to essentially shop from what’s in season right now from area farms, place one big order, and then let the Farms2Tables trucks drop off everything to them in one shipment. Once the order is delivered and approved, digital invoices and bills of lading are instantly emailed to whomever handles the finances for each account.
Many have told Wind that taking part in the program has allowed them to either reduce or altogether eliminate their participation at farmers’ markets, which helps reduce the number of vendors at local markets, ensuring more sales for those that are still there and helping to dial things back to the state of equilibrium that Wind feels most markets were at four years ago.
But as the program grew, they kept hearing the same question from friends and family members who weren’t professional chefs: How can we get in on this? And that is how the F2T Box was born. Wind says that she and Platt had always figured that there would be a consumer side to the business at some point, far in the future. But once they examined the logistics of it, they realized that almost all of the pieces were already in place.
“We’re already paying for trucks, insurance and drivers for the wholesale side of the business,” she said. “The wholesale business operates weekdays and the consumer side is Saturdays and Sundays, but we’re using the same trucks, the same insurance, the same drivers.”
Although there’s no app for the consumer sales, the F2T Box shares the same basic idea and infrastructure as the Farms2Tables app. It’s a way for hurried and harried people who would like to take advantage of the Valley’s bounty but—much like those chefs who would love to drive around and visit farms all day—don’t have the time for lengthy, weekly trips to farmers’ markets or U-picks.
A grocery-subscription service, the F2T Box comes in three different sizes, ranging from a $75 box with enough groceries to get a couple through the week to a $198 box with enough food to feed a large family. Unlike a CSA share, in which you’re limited to whatever the farm grows, the F2T Box seeks to cover all of a household’s grocery needs throughout the week by picking and choosing the best of those 65 farms throughout the Valley. Chicken, eggs, milk, vegetables, fruit, ground beef, steak, duck, bacon, yogurt, cheese, salad greens and “value added” items like honey, butter, sauces or jams are all included. The contents of the box are slightly different from week to week and can be altered to accommodate vegetarians as well as those who don’t eat red meat.
The boxes can be ordered weekly, semiweekly or even just once in a while for those who know they have a particularly busy week coming up. Recipes designed to use the contents of each box are provided by local chefs who use the Farms2Tables app, although, unlike meal-subscription services like Blue Apron or Plated, the recipes are simply suggestions of how to use what’s in the box. “We want it to be flexible,” said Wind. “Like, you can make the duck this way using these things in your box, or you can make it this other way using these other things in your box.”
With everything paid for in advance, F2T Box customers just need to run into whichever restaurant or store is serving as their local pickup spot, grab their box, and go. All the week’s shopping done in as much time as it takes to find a parking spot. Wind doesn’t see the F2T Box replacing CSAs or farmers’ markets. That’s not the point.
“We need our CSAs and markets,” she said. “I think that our model is targeted to a different consumer. People who buy from CSAs know their farmers. Maybe their farm is five minutes away. They like to go there, they like to be involved, they do the U-pick—that’s part of their lifestyle. Our consumers are people who would love to visit a farm every week and spend two hours there, but it doesn’t fit into their schedules. They want to eat local, healthy food. They just don’t have the time.”
Well, they didn’t. But thanks to the F2T Box, if they can squeeze in one stop a week, they have all the time they need to shop local.
For more information about the F2T Box and Farms2Tables app, visit their website at www.farms2tables.com. █