Local Food For Thought – Crushing on Relay Foods
By Alison Klein | April 29, 2015
What if you had a friend who did your grocery shopping for you? A friend more accommodating than your real friends — one with no qualms about driving to local farms, recommending healthy options and, if you wanted, even planning meals for you and your family.
That friend would be beyond awesome. That friend is actually real — meet Relay Foods.
Company Crush (and fellow B Corp) Relay Foods is a grocery company that brings local produce, sustainable foods and everyday groceries directly to customers. By offering online ordering and convenient home delivery and pick up, the 6-year-old company has already grown beyond its Charlottesville home to serve the Research Triangle in North Carolina, much of Virginia and the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore metro areas.
I talked with Sarah Yates, VP of Marketing to learn more about how Relay Foods (Relay) makes a positive impact on the lives of its customers, its suppliers and its local communities.
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When I asked Sarah whether Relay’s customers cared most about the healthiness of the food, its local origins or its convenient delivery, she speculated that a desire to be healthy is their primary motivation.
“Fundamentally,” she explained, “our customer base is made up of people who want to live full lives, but they also want to put healthy food on the table. They know that local food is fresh, less processed and nutrient-rich, but their time is valuable and they don’t want to spend hours visiting three or four different stores.”
By assembling orders and bringing them to convenient pick-up points, Relay allows its customers to live their bustling lives and still put healthy food on the table. In addition to giving them back their time, the model also allows shoppers to make informed decisions when purchasing.
Sarah told me that since its beginnings, Relay’s founders have seen the existing food system as problematic. They believe strongly that “The lack of transparency in supermarkets about who grows food and where it comes from creates a disconnect for people in how they understand their food.”
With Relay’s model, customers can access the story behind each product. For example: “Lee down at Radical Roots grew this tomato. She’s been using sustainable farming methods for over 13 years, and because you bought through Relay, she can take a day or two off from her busy summertime rotation of farmers’ markets to spend time with her family.”
Sarah stresses that this visibility helps people understand the power of their decisions and the positive way they can impact other individuals in their communities.
In addition to creating options and agency for its customers, Relay also opens up possibilities for its suppliers. Sarah explained that it can be difficult for small-scale producers to partner with large distributers because of their rigid demands and unwavering expectations. Relay, however, can work with local producers on their own terms to help them grow a strong customer base.
Relay’s site says that of the ~8,000 products in their catalogue, 30% are locally sourced. When I asked Sarah if that ratio would hold with expansion, she explained that the effort to maintain it never really stops. Relay’s commitment to finding and partnering with local producers means that even after local food sourcing teams scout out new areas and programs launch, staffers continue searching for new local partners.
Sarah explained that in new areas it can be difficult to reach the 30% ratio, but “it’s a challenge we constantly strive to meet. Since produce is one of our strongest categories in terms of volume and because it’s relatively easy to source locally, we deliberately make locally-sourced produce a priority.” Currently, Relay works with between 45 and 50 small farms.
Relay’s model inherently strengthens local economies by helping local producers grow. They also partner with schools and charities, providing support for events, in-kind donations of fresh food and produce, and co-promoting to strengthen community causes. Sarah explained that the team at Relay views fostering relationships with these community organizations as the core of their customer outreach strategy.
Relay also offers any food within 5 days of expiration to local nonprofits, which lets them keep their standards high, minimize waste and make healthy food available to those in need. Organizations they work with include Food Not Bombs, The Gray Haven, Twin Oaks, The Society of St. Andrew and the Salvation Army.
I wanted to dig deeper so I took a risk and asked Sarah if Relay is doing anything else to get healthy, local food to those without a very generous paycheck (Whole Foods / whole paycheck syndrome).
She acknowledged that “People want healthy food, but some people struggle to put any food on the table at all.” By cutting out the middle-man, Relay can offer a good value on some items but at the same time, much of their stock is priced outside the reach of more budget-conscious shoppers.
The Relay team has discussed at length “the power of our mobile model to bring much-needed options to food deserts.” To that end, they’re hoping to participate in a pilot program in Virginia that will allow e-commerce sites to accept food stamps from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Relay has been actively investigating their options to push forward with this initiative, including by reaching out to Governor Terry McAuliffe and staff.
As this article describes, there are incentive programs like the Healthy Incentives Pilot in Massachusetts, which provides a credit of 30 cents for every SNAP dollar spent on fruits and vegetable. Preliminary data shows a 25 percent increase in produce consumption.
While they’re a great start, incentive programs like this assume that participants have access to fruits and vegetables. If the SNAP program could accommodate e-commerce and companies like Relay could do business with those in need, once practically unattainable healthy foods would be within reach. According to Sarah, if all goes according to plan “Relay should be able to accept food stamps online sometime in 2016.
It would still be important to consider whether those enrolled in SNAP would have the resources necessary to place the online orders (internet access, credit card etc.). Perhaps Relay could explore offline ordering in certain areas to make its services more widely available.
After talking with Sarah, I was struck by the funny paradox of the internet-retail revolution: a mechanism for “global” connection has become increasingly important in facilitating local connection. Who would have thought that when technology allowed us to buy whatever we wanted from wherever we wanted with the click of the button, that we would end up ordering local items from vendors just a few miles away?
What are your thoughts on local food? Is it the answer to strengthening local communities economically and socially? Is it the future of consumption or another crunchy fad that will quickly pass? Tell me about it in the comments below.
The Company Crush series spotlights companies using inventive business models to create positive change in the world. By sharing their stories, we hope to inspire more people to use business as a force for good.