The First Years of the Bypass Project Supply Chain Prototype
Red Tomato’s position as a small but mighty food hub allows us to see the big picture of our regional food system. We work with players at every level of the supply chain but are not a massive organization, which means that when these players surface gaps or concerns, we can be creative, nimble, and innovative in how we respond.
One of the ongoing examples of how we have used our position to improve and focus our work began during the COVID pandemic. In 2020, we recognized that, while Red Tomato helped growers distribute and sell their product to retailers, underserved communities in the area were being left out, with few to no options to obtain fresh, local produce. Food sovereignty needed to be at the heart of this work. We determined the solution would require bringing parts of the community together that generally don’t talk — the local mid-sized growers and the eaters in underserved communities.
Local mid-sized farms face increasing challenges in the retail space. They are expected to match the product prices of the largest commodity farms, even if those farms are a thousand miles away. Eaters in underserved communities often struggle to afford ever-higher prices for food, frequently without access to local produce or fresh food choices.
“I grew up in the inner city so I’ve seen and been part of the disparities,” Red Tomato Executive Director Angel Mendez shared. “I know what it’s like to be in those communities. I understand the problem of lack of access. It’s a big deal now for me to bring back all of that knowledge. I’m at Red Tomato to bridge the small farming community with the underserved communities and bring that synergy so that we can build this food supply chain program that we all want to see.”
In 2021, in collaboration with Reos Partners, Connecticut farmers, and Connecticut community food distributors in the low-income communities of Bridgeport and Hartford, Red Tomato launched the Bypass Project. This supply chain prototype project aims to address affordability, accessibility, and food insecurity in our programmatic work. Red Tomato developed this project from the idea of bringing together the people who actually grow the food with the people who eat the food. Simple, right? One would think so, but so many systems get in the way of that direct connection. The idea of this project is to determine how to “bypass” those systems so that everyone’s needs are met: underserved communities get access to affordable, healthy food, and growers get a fair price.
“The growers are a resource to the community, and the community is a resource to the growers,” Mendez said. “When they both started doing their magic and talking about the possibilities, they could see how much they could do to help each other. We want to be the bridge that comes in and helps facilitate this connection.”
Red Tomato is committed to connecting these two parties to build synergies. To figure out the best path forward, we all need to understand how to build an efficient supply chain that bypasses the retailer to reduce costs and create a steady flow of food into underserved communities.
We set the following goals for the Bypass Project:
- Provide high-quality products at a cost that is seen to be affordable and of good value.
- Provide producers with a reliable market and fair price for their value.
- Identify and explore collaboration with existing initiatives/supply chains within the community that is trying to address the same issue.
- Ensure the model is sustainable and replicable (serving as a blueprint to bring to other regions).
Lessons Learned and Successes Discovered in Local Food Access
Red Tomato performed a pilot of this supply chain in 2021, and it worked: We delivered more than $25,000 of fresh food in six deliveries! Red Tomato’s pilot created a network of farmers, distributors, and food pantries to deliver fresh, local produce to the community. We found that the supply chain was successful in meeting the needs of the community and creating a more efficient system for delivering food to those in need. The pilot also allowed us to identify areas of improvement, such as technology enhancements and logistics, that can be addressed to make the delivery process more efficient. We also identified better ways to communicate with food pantries and farmers and to coordinate orders to ensure that food pantries receive the freshest produce possible. We are excited to continue to develop our supply chain and explore opportunities to expand the reach of our program. Our pilot has demonstrated that local, fresh food can be delivered to food pantries efficiently and cost-effectively and that our system can create a win-win situation for all involved.
We uncovered a few kinks to work out in our second year of testing this supply-chain prototype. We developed a learning plan with the support of Reos Partners, spearheaded by Ian Prinsloo who has now founded Create|Act, to track and prioritize the obstacles to overcome. Some of the obstacles identified in year one were:
- Infrastructure varied amongst participants: This means specific equipment is required for effective delivery and quality control.
- Order coordination system/tools: Identified as a major roadblock for coordinating current orders and adding participants for order aggregators or consolidators.
- Order Consistency: Needed to enable growers to plan adequately and develop systems for more predictability and planning for orders.
With new philanthropic support, we entered our second year of running this new supply chain in mid-July 2022, connecting food from local Connecticut farms to communities in Bridgeport and Hartford.
Looking Ahead at Improving Our Bypass Supply Chain in 2023
In 2023, we continue to streamline operations to local food access as we push the envelope by adding more produce items and dairy, while also exploring the addition of protein. We also are laying the groundwork to include urban farm production in the Bypass supply chain.
We are upgrading our distribution software to create a digital platform allowing customers to place orders online. This platform will give customers access to our products and other relevant information. Furthermore, we are expanding our reach to engage more customers to provide fresh, healthy, and affordable food.
Finally, we are working to ensure that our products meet the highest quality and safety standards. In the long term, we are focused on creating a more sustainable food system by developing innovative solutions that can help create a more equitable and efficient food system. We want to create a system that is accessible and affordable to all.
If you are interested in helping us build a better food system, please join us! You can donate to our cause, or spread the word about our efforts to your friends and family. Together, we can create a more sustainable and equitable food system. Thank you for your support.