When restaurants and schools closed in March due to the coronavirus, 4P Foods — like so many other businesses and organizations in this time — faced the hard reality that much of its work was no longer possible.
4P Foods is a food hub that aggregates food from local farmers and food producers, and distributes it to individuals and institutions throughout Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. It operates two lines of business: local food deliveries for residents in a CSA-style model, and wholesale deliveries to large institutions, such as D.C. Public Schools and the University of Virginia. As schools and restaurants closed rapidly, they turned food deliveries away at the loading dock. 4P Foods suddenly had an abundance of fresh food and nowhere for it to go.
The shutdown raised panic for many members of the local food system. Farmers worried they wouldn’t be able to sell their produce. Restaurant workers lost their jobs. Food was going to waste while people were going hungry. And amidst the panic, 4P Foods found an opportunity.
The food hub redirected food meant for wholesale towards its individual customers who were now sheltering at home and hesitant to go grocery shopping. Before the pandemic, 4P Foods delivered between 500 – 600 bags of food to its customers each week. That number has increased more than tenfold, to 7,000 bags of food each week. Its team of 25 people has grown to 100, working 24 hours a day to meet the skyrocketing demand for home delivery of local, healthy foods.
4P Foods did more than rise to the challenge of salvaging its own business — it also devised a way to support other members of the food system who were struggling to get by. It partnered with other food enterprises in the region to launch the Mid-Atlantic Food Resilience and Access Coalition (MAFRAC) to help coordinate the many players in the local food system, rallying around a mission to “feed and be fed.” Partners include Arcadia, DC Greens, Dreaming Out Loud, Local Food Hub, DC Central Kitchen, Montgomery County Food Council, Prince George’s County Food Equity Council, and the Green Scheme, among others.
As large-scale food and agriculture supply chains were disrupted by the pandemic, MAFRAC helped build resiliency and responsiveness within the local food supply chain so that people in need of food could find it, and people with food to offer could share it.
In one of its many new endeavors, MAFRAC has worked with organizations who received too many government-funded food relief boxes to get the excess to smaller organizations left out of such programs. They have also partnered with food relief suppliers to incorporate more local food items, such as applesauce made by local processors using local apples that would otherwise have gone to waste. In feeding communities, MAFRAC creates meaningful, sustainable employment for people in the food industry who otherwise may have lost their jobs due to Covid-19.
“We’re building the plane while flying it,” says Tom McDougall, 4P’s founder, of the company’s new call to action. But the food hub’s extensive network of relationships, along with its experience with food sourcing distribution, have equipped it to rapidly scale its new efforts to meet growing demand.
A new warehouse, partially financed through a Reinvestment Fund loan in December 2019, provided necessary infrastructure to support these adaptations. Partnerships with other small farmers, food banks, and organizations dedicated to building equitable food systems lend knowledge and resources to the common cause of activating a local food system with both urgency and care.
The pandemic revealed significant weaknesses in our nation’s food supply chains, but also demonstrated that, with leadership and collaboration, local food systems can mobilize collectively to nourish their communities —creating meaningful jobs while bringing good, local food to people who need it most.