There’s nothing that ruins a weekend outing to the farmers market quite like a surprise thunderstorm.
But while it’s always a bummer to slog home with rain-soaked canvas tote bags, the consequences of a midday downpour—or a heatwave, or a citywide event, or an unannounced MBTA closure—can be dire for the small, family-owned businesses that rely on farmers markets as a significant source of income.
“[Farmers market vendors] really bank on a lot of anticipation and guesses,” says Juleen Wong, head of business development at Food For All, the Cambridge-based app that allows users to purchase restaurants’ leftover food for a discounted price. “All these factors lead to a ton of unpredictability that obviously leads to not only a lot of surplus, but lower sales.”
This problem facing small businesses is what inspired Wong to push for Food For All to include farmers market vendors on the app, alongside its 100-plus restaurant partners. This new expansion includes partnerships with the Eloti street corn stand, El Colombiano Coffee, Lavender Bee Baking Co., In Season Food Shop, SamosaMan, Brazilian cheese bread vendor Say Pão de Queijo, Egyptian street food vendor Koshari Mama, and B. GOOD’s Hannah Farm. These vendors pop up at markets across Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston, including the farmers markets at Central Square, Davis Square, Egleston Square, Union Square, Maverick Square, SoWa, and Brookline.
The Food For All team focused the expansion on prepared food vendors, or farmers market vendors who prepare menu items and meals rather than simply selling produce and other ingredients, according to Wong. While produce vendors can usually donate leftovers, minimizing the issue of food waste, regulations prohibit prepared food vendors from doing the same.
“Having food be wasted or composted when it could be in people’s bellies just seemed a little inefficient and silly,” Wong says.
With Food For All, these vendors can now list their meals on the app, reducing waste and recouping the cost of their ingredients.
To claim a meal from a farmers’ market vendor, app users follow the same simple process that they do for restaurant meals. Starting at 6 a.m. each morning, users can log into the app to claim a meal. While the exact meal the customer will receive depends on the vendor’s end-of-day inventory, the customer is rewarded by a steep discount. A cob of Eloti’s street corn, for example, costs $5 at the market, but only $2.50 through Food For All. Then, users simply visit the vendor at a scheduled pick-up time (usually around the vendor’s closing time) and show a receipt to claim their meal.
“Farmers markets are incredible, but oftentimes, price points are higher than people are able to afford,” says Wong. “[Food for All] is a great way to show people that farmers markets have affordable meals and they’re available to you.”
Just like the restaurants on the app, food vendors estimate how many meals they’ll have leftover each day. However, Wong explains that working with farmers market vendors presents some unique challenges. While restaurants have a consistent surplus of food, for example, it is much more likely that a farmers market vendor will run out of food before the day is done. To help prevent this, Food For All works with each vendor to understand their typical surplus. If a vendor experiences a remarkable day of sales and runs out of food entirely, however, the app will automatically refund the customer’s money.
Additionally, farmers market vendors are constantly on the move, popping up at different markets across the state each week. This adds an extra level of difficulty for the Food For All team, as they need to know when to list each vendor in the app. But Wong says the added difficulty is well worth the effort.
“Part of this is being a platform for folks to learn where our vendors are headed,” she says. “A lot of times the vendors don’t have the capacity to be on social media announcing the upcoming plans for the season, so we want to gradually start doing education on where you can find them now. Even if people don’t catch that in the newsletter or on social media, they’re going to see it on the app.”
With this new farmers market project, a new partnership with Project Bread, and aspirations of working with local food trucks, Food For All doesn’t show signs of slowing down anytime soon—and the team members attribute their penchant for constant innovation to the city where they first planted their roots.
“This is a Cambridge-born movement,” Wong says. “It’s a place where you talk to people and you realize they’re hungry for ideas like this.”