Valley Bounty: Mass Food Delivery service maximizes access to farms

Soph Leavitt fills boxes with fresh vegetables in preparation  to load the trucks  at Mass Food Delivery owned by Julia Coffey in South  Deerfield.

Soph Leavitt fills boxes with fresh vegetables in preparation to load the trucks at Mass Food Delivery owned by Julia Coffey in South Deerfield. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Devon Murphy weighs and bags Brussels sprouts that will be included in boxes with oher fresh vegetables and loaded onto trucks at Mass Food Delivery, owned by Julia Coffey in South Deerfield. Behind him is Jan Rolin.

Devon Murphy weighs and bags Brussels sprouts that will be included in boxes with oher fresh vegetables and loaded onto trucks at Mass Food Delivery, owned by Julia Coffey in South Deerfield. Behind him is Jan Rolin. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Fresh bagged Brussels sprouts   at Mass Food Delivery in South  Deerfield.

Fresh bagged Brussels sprouts at Mass Food Delivery in South Deerfield. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Soph Leavitt fills boxes with fresh vegetables in preparation  to load the trucks  at Mass Food Delivery owned by Julia Coffey in South  Deerfield.

Soph Leavitt fills boxes with fresh vegetables in preparation to load the trucks at Mass Food Delivery owned by Julia Coffey in South Deerfield. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS—

By LISA GOODRICH

For the Gazette

Published: 01-17-2024 7:08 PM

Modified: 01-17-2024 7:24 PM


Farms are the foundation of our local food system, with farmers markets, farm stands, and community markets providing the predominant means of providing local food to customers. And for some members of the community, the ability to order fresh, local food online and have it delivered is not only convenient, but a necessity.

Mass Food Delivery was born in March 2020 as farmers markets began closing in response to the pandemic. At that moment, Julia Coffey, owner-operator of Mycoterra Farm in South Deerfield, knew that her farm relied on direct sales for about 80% of its revenue. Her organic mushroom farm frequented 15 farmers markets across Massachusetts each week, and maintaining connections between her customers and the other farmers and vendors from those markets became her priority.

The concept of home delivery seemed the best option, and Mass Food Delivery was born. Coffey’s cousin, Jan Rolin, became the operations manager. “When everything shut down for the pandemic, Julia recognized that if we were in this shape, so was everyone else,” Rolin said. “Delivery helped save our farm, and we helped save other farms with this service.”

Beginning with an email, Coffey asked for collaborators, and many producers up and down the Pioneer Valley responded. Red Fire Farm, Winter Moon Roots, Queen’s Greens, Red Barn Honey, and Grace Hill were some of the early participants. By the summer of 2020, many other producers joined, including Joe Czajkowski Farm, Kitchen Garden Farm, Mapleline Farm, Pine Hill Orchard, Reed Farm, Sage Farm, and Ground Up Grain.

Kitchen Garden Farm shared trucks, and Red Fire Farm shared equipment to help Mass Food Delivery get started.

In spring 2020, Coffey relied on CISA for support as she drafted the first Mass Food Delivery website. She sent the draft to the Local Hero Member Services Coordinator at the time, who shared it with CISA's network. It went viral, with over a million website hits that crashed the site. Mass Food Delivery had 89 orders their first week in operation, and 512 their second week resulting from that shared website. Coffey notes, “I had been on the fence about whether this was the right path to take, and with this surge of interest, it was like, we're doing this.”

Mass Food Delivery currently delivers an average of 600-700 boxes per month, and they also deliver Red Fire Farm's CSAs in the eastern part of the state.

Initially, Mass Food Delivery covered the entire state except the Cape and Islands; that map has reduced to include all of western Massachusetts and the Berkshires, the North Shore, and Boston. The service boomed during the pandemic, revealing both unexpected reasons why customers seek home delivery, and holes to access in our local food system.

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Home delivery allows people to order fresh produce for family members or friends who live independently but require support from others, like parents aging in place or adult children with special needs. Some customers, particularly in Cambridge and Somerville, order for older family members who only speak Russian or Mandarin Chinese, eliminating the language barrier and providing high-quality food for their loved ones. In the beginning, Northampton-Amherst and Cambridge-Somerville were hotspots. They had a few hundred orders a week, just in Cambridge-Somerville.

Meanwhile, for some rural clients during the pandemic, lack of transportation meant Mass Food Delivery was their only source of food. “Improving food access has been important to us as a farm and from the start of Mass Food Delivery,” Coffey says.

Through a partnership with Lifepath in Franklin County, Mass Food Delivery delivered 400 boxes per month to Franklin County seniors. This was a huge commitment that helped farms stay afloat during the pandemic.

Mass Food Delivery tries to keep financial barriers at a minimum, especially by offering SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps) as a payment option and getting approved as a HIP vendor. HIP (the Healthy Incentives Program) offers all Massachusetts SNAP recipients $40-80 extra in benefits each month to spend on locally grown produce from approved retailers, helping stretch food spending further and directing more food spending to local businesses.

As buying patterns have shifted since the early days of the pandemic, holding the line on financial accessibility has been an interesting challenge. Initially, SNAP and HIP customers were just 20% of Mass Food Delivery’s clientele, and the high total volume of customers subsidized home delivery for SNAP & HIP orders. Yet as the pandemic eased, initial high-revenue orders from households in affluent urban areas dissipated as customers for local food returned to in-person shopping at farmers markets and farm stands.

By the end of 2022, SNAP households amounted to 80% of home delivery orders, and they had to begin charging discounted delivery fees to them to stay in business. At the same time, Rolin said, “We’ve tried hard to keep our prices the same, even though food prices have gone up very much.”

While wearing her farmer hat, Coffey was delighted to return to face-to-face business. At the same time, the pandemic had revealed to her pockets of people with more tenuous food access for myriad reasons: language, mobility, health, and transportation in both urban and rural settings. This awareness reframed Mass Food Delivery’s value as a company that could provide some food security for these populations.

Coffey and Rolin remain passionate about local food access. Says Coffey, “I’ve kept Mass Food Delivery going for the people we serve, because we make a critical impact on their food supply.”

Cost-wise, Mass Food Delivery prices match those of local grocers. Mass Food Delivery customers shop their preferred frequency of weekly, biweekly, or monthly. Rolin sends a regular newsletter with delivery dates and updates. Unlike bigger businesses, small businesses and farms cannot process online payments for SNAP, and so customers place their orders online, then meet the driver to make payment or swipe their SNAP cards.

Says Coffey, “Our policy has been to leave food even when we do not receive payment. Mass Food Delivery has subsidized over $38,000 worth of food and waived over $150,000 in delivery fees since our inception in 2020.”

In June of 2022, Mass Food Delivery delivered to an average of 500 SNAP customers per month. They had to add a $10 delivery fee to be able to continue operating and were surprised that SNAP customers stayed and even more signed up.

Since 2020, in collaboration with the Food Bank of Western Mass, they have distributed over 11,000 boxes (110 tons) of free produce through the USDA Farmers to Families Program, and have donated about 3 tons of produce to local pantries and soup kitchens in Hampshire and Franklin counties.

Making an impact brings joy to the cousins. 

Coffey concludes, “I couldn’t be more thrilled with our impact. We have established an impressive network of local growers and producers and a customer base that relies on our services. Yet it has become a labor of love that takes me away from operating Mycoterra Farm. I would love to find a non-profit or organizational partner to adopt Mass Food Delivery and operate this critical service so I can get back to my real passion: farming!”

Lisa Goodrich is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about local food businesses of all kinds, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.