Can the Postal Service bridge the food-insecurity gap?

For the past three months or so, the U.S. Postal Service has been taken to the woodshed over too many late or missed deliveries of mail and parcels. With delivery reliability such a paramount issue, it might seem fanciful to float an idea for the Postal Service to pick up service-sensitive fresh produce at the nation’s farms and deliver it to residences.

However, that’s what the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Markets Institute is proposing through a drawing-board initiative called Farmers Post, which calls for leveraging the Postal Service’s universal delivery network to pick up nonrefrigerated produce at the source for residential deliveries nationwide. 

The initiative, which Julia Kurnik, WWF’s director of innovation startups, describes as being in the “conversation-starter” stage, is theoretically designed to meet three objectives: to provide farmers with a new channel of distribution; to offer consumers safe and convenient access to nutritious foods without relying on new-age e-grocery services that could be too costly and unavailable to many; and to provide the Postal Service with an easy-to-scale program that, according to a WWF report published last month, could generate as much as $6 billion in additional annual revenue if it penetrates 10% of the U.S. population.

As envisioned, the service would bridge the “gap between farmers with excess produce seeking additional markets and consumers for whom other delivery services may be out of reach,” according to the WWF report. The service would take the form of a standardized offering from farmers with specially designed produce boxes, according to the report. Farmers would work with a third party that would manage the customer interaction, while the Postal Service would lend its brand to build awareness, the report said.

If a pilot is green-lighted, the program could adequately scale in a matter of months because it would build on the existing postal network and pricing format, Kurnik said.

There is no shortage of relief programs aimed at alleviating hunger in America. Meal kits, community-supported agriculture subscriptions (CSA) and surplus produce recovery services like Hungry Harvest and Imperfect Produce have seen demand spike since the pandemic began. However, those programs call for households to pick up food at a central location or require the use of expensive distribution centers to store the foodstuffs. As envisioned, Farmers Post would circumvent the need for pickups as well as for intermediate storage points, Kurnik said.

According to Kurnik, the idea took hold last spring as WWF, along with everyone else, watched gut-wrenching scenes of households lined up for miles to accept free boxes of food, while farmers and growers destroyed untold amounts of foodstuffs because their normal distribution channels were suddenly closed off and they had no way to reposition their supply before it spoiled.

The Postal Service has so far been helpful in providing background information to help WWF develop its analysis, Kurnik said. However, the agency is not currently involved in the project, she said. A Postal Service spokesman said he was unaware of the initative.

WWF has also met with a handful of farmers who seemed receptive to the concept, Kurnik said. “Right now, we are trying to understand what is possible,” she said. 

Like most produce, the goods shipped through the Farmers Post program would have a limited shelf life, and there would need to be a lengthy dialogue to ensure the Postal Service’s delivery network is up to the task. New box configurations would likely be required. In addition, discussions would need to be held to determine who would pay for the service. At this point, WWF is leaning toward the end consumer being the responsible party, Kurniik said in a recent interview.

The program would also need to comply with the Postal Service’s regulations governing the pickup and delivery of foodstuffs. The Postal Service bars the mailing of fresh fruits and vegetables unless the product is presented in a dry, but not dried, condition, according to the agency’s rulebook. Other perishable foods that are capable of easily decomposing or that cannot reach their destination without spoiling are also banned, the Postal Service said. Packaging must be “strong and securely sealed” in accordance with the agency’s guidelines, it said.

As with so many daily habits, grocery shopping and consumption was upended by the pandemic. Prior to COVID-19, grocery e-delivery services had a 3% to 4% share of the overall U.S. grocery market, according to a WWF report published last month. Those levels spiked during the pandemic as locked-down consumers increased their online ordering activity. E-commerce will play a more prominent role in grocery shopping as consumers realize the ease and convenience of the process.

Before the pandemic, 35.2 million Americans, nearly one-third of them children, lived in households with “food insecurity,” defined by the federal government as a household’s inability to provide enough nutritious food for each person to live an active, healthy life. Those were the lowest levels in 20 years. Due to the economic impact of the pandemic, 50 million Americans, and one in four children, could be food insecure in 2020, according to estimates last year by nonprofit organization Feeding America.