The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The USPS should be Instacart for farm-fresh food

A U.S. Postal Service mail collector in Washington, D.C., in 2009. (Marcus Yam/The Washington Post)

Katherine Devine is the director of business case development at the World Wildlife Fund’s Markets Institute.

Every year, about 17 million tons of crops perish before ever making it off U.S. farms, even as millions of Americans face hunger. What’s more, when we waste food, we also waste the land, water and other resources that produced it, at a time when human activity is already altering our planet in drastic and dangerous ways.

The pandemic has only exacerbated the country’s food insecurity. The closure of restaurants and schools, along with disrupted supply chains, has left many farmers in dire straits. Meanwhile, online grocery shopping has grown by leaps and bounds during the pandemic, yet access to fresh fruit and vegetables and affordability remain barriers for many consumers.

A potential solution could come, quite literally, in the mail.

At World Wildlife Fund’s Markets Institute, we’re proposing a new business model that leverages the U.S. Postal Service’s vast logistical network to deliver fresh produce from local farmers who have excess harvest or are seeking new markets. The Farmers Post initiative would create new revenue streams for farmers, provide more consumers with access to affordable food and reduce some of the environmental pressures imposed by the current food system.

Under the Farmers Post model, USPS drivers would pick up boxes of locally and seasonably available produce from farms along their usual routes and deliver them right to people’s front doors — no extra trips or other changes in behavior needed on either the consumer or producer side. They could also deliver bulk orders to designated drop-off locations, to meet the needs of consumers for whom home delivery is not an ideal option.

Americans are constantly being told they should eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, but the sad fact is that, for many people, fresh produce is a luxury. Farmers Post could bring nutritious food within closer reach for many consumers, particularly rural communities, housebound individuals and other underserved populations. The federal agency already delivers across the country to towns, cities and suburbs, to rich and poor alike — and all at standardized, cost-competitive rates.

The government could further incentivize participation by approving the use of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to cover this service. The need is clearly there: In 2020, the number of SNAP beneficiaries rose by 6 million, or roughly 15 percent. Yet SNAP benefits are not accepted by most online grocery delivery platforms, and even where they are accepted, they still don’t cover service and delivery fees, which can be a prohibitive cost for many consumers.

As for farmers, the initiative would help them diversify their income streams, reduce on-farm loss and eschew typical supply-chain markups and other costs that make it difficult to competitively price their food. And just imagine if, in the future, Farmers Post evolved into a subscription service: In such a scenario, farmers would be able to more accurately assess consumer demand and plan their crop planting accordingly. That means a stable income and less waste, something both farmers and our planet desperately need.

The Postal Service would stand to benefit as well. During a period in which the agency faces severe funding challenges, Farmers Post could open the door to billions of dollars in additional annual revenue.

Of course, it’s not all that simple. The Farmers Post initiative would likely need a third-party service to create and manage an online interface for consumers, aggregate participating farmers, provide customer service and more — all of which incur costs that would need to be further explored.

The idea comes with inherent limitations as well. Seasonality and regionality would mean less variety for consumers than what they might find in a store, although existing platforms face these same challenges. Also, produce has a short shelf life: to ensure delivery of fresh food by the following day, USPS drivers could deliver only from local farms to homes or other locations within close-by Zip codes. Even so, the Postal Service’s unmatched reach means the service would likely be available to most Americans.

The pandemic has shone a spotlight on our broken food system: farmers feeling the pinch, families experiencing food insecurity and a nation squandering its ecological wealth to produce food no one eats. New vaccines will wind down the pandemic. Who knew a 246-year-old government service could help with the rest?

Read more:

José Andrés: What the pandemic can teach us about treating hunger

Qian Julie Wang: Haunted by hunger fears since childhood, I finally stopped overbuying food when the pandemic hit

The Post’s View: The virus has triggered a surge in food insecurity. But there are ways to combat it.