KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The omicron variant and winter storms continue to hurt supply chains and labor shortages across the nation, and grocery stores in East Tennessee are feeling the effects.
The empty aisles and produce displays mean East Tennesseans have less access to nutritious food. But Jen Russomanno, an assistant professor of public health at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, is trying to mitigate the problem.
Russomanno and her partner Kim Bryant, the owners of Two Chicks and a Farm, have produced organic food at fair prices since 2012. Now, with the help of Market Wagon, an online farmers market, Russomanno and Bryant can distribute their products to more people across the region.
“I think the pandemic has shed a light on issues with food systems in general,” Russomanno said. “We saw early on the shortages with paper goods, toilet paper, you know, that kind of stuff. But in my opinion, now is when we’re really seeing the effects of the shortages of the pandemic when it comes to food.”
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According to data from Feeding America, 12.7% of people in East Tennessee were food insecure in 2019.
Russomanno, whose research focuses on food access and affordability and chairs the Knoxville-Knox County Food Policy Council, has felt the need for accessible, local food since she and Bryant bought their property in Jefferson County 10 years ago.
“At the time, there was really no affordable organic food to be found in Jefferson County,” Russomanno said. “I honestly think that was before Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s even got built in Knox County. So we decided to grow our own.”
A HOBBY TURNS INTO A CAREER
Russomanno had never farmed before, but that didn’t stop her and Bryant, an East Tennessee native whose father owned a farm, from taking a stab at it. Before they knew it, their hobby had turned into a full-time career.
But Russomanno already had a full-time job at UT, and spending every Saturday at farmers markets was cutting into her already scarce free time. When Market Wagon recruited Two Chicks and a Farm to join their online farmers market program, the answer was an obvious “yes.”
“Their model was a lot like what we were actually doing on our own farm, so it just made kind of natural sense because they covered a larger territory than we as one small farm were able to do,” Russomanno said.
The farm is known for its Candy variety of onions plus it offers eggs, Brussels sprouts, lettuce and beets.
The online farmers market delivers to homes in a 14-county region around Knoxville every Thursday, allowing more than 100 farmers in the East Tennessee area to reach people they might otherwise not be able to serve. Shoppers pay a $6.95 delivery charge, though there’s no fee for vendors to join the marketplace.
ONLINE MODEL MAKES IT EASIER TO GET LOCAL PRODUCE
Russomanno is a big fan of the delivery model because it makes it easier for homebound individuals or busy parents to get local products and it decreases the reliance on corporate food systems.
“I think kind of moving towards a model of relying on local systems has been something that I’ve been in favor of for a really long time,” Russomanno said. “We put a lot of eggs in the basket of our larger broader systems of, you know, the federal government, federal food supplies, you know, larger chain food supplies. I think that there’s an opportunity to utilize local food systems to alleviate issues of access.”
Traditional farmers markets are typically only hosted once a week, limiting the number of people who can go.
“If someone has to work … or has other commitments, or whatever it might be like, sometimes they’re just not accessible to people,” Russomanno said.
The online farmers market allows Russomanno to know exactly how many orders she needs to fulfill for the week, eliminating the guessing game of a market.
According to Nick Carter, the co-founder and CEO of Market Wagon, the company serves 33 cities across the South and Midwest, helping small family farms create viable income streams off their farms.
“I would have been the fourth-generation farmer on the land that I grew up on,” Carter said. “The impacts of what we now see in our supermarkets and industrial food were consolidation and commoditization of agriculture, which meant, I mean, there wasn’t any farm left for me to be a farmer.”
East Tennessee has been one of Market Wagon’s fastest-growing markets with thousands of active customers and at least 100 food producers.
“Why aren’t more people buying local food? The reason is because it’s the hardest to find.” Carter said. “What we’ve decided to do with Market Wagon is use E-commerce and last-mile delivery and technology to make buying local food as easy as possible. By creating that convenience factor, and still connecting directly just with a completely local food supply chain, we’re now putting local food producers on even footing with the big boys.”
Dan Klein, a community relations manager with Market Wagon, says that Two Chicks and a Farm sells between about 250-350 items a week through Market Wagon, depending on the supply and demand based on the season.
“Being able to provide local locally-sourced food year-round is something that I feel like really should be a larger model across the nation,” Russomanno said. “Again, I think that the pandemics really highlighted that we cannot rely on these supply chains because they’re broken.
“You are able to source something that is, like, right at your doorstep, and you’re taking out the transportation, the packaging, all that stuff. I just think it provides like a lot more flexibility for people to get the type of food that they’re obviously wanting to get.”
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