Consumers Look Beyond Grocery Stores to 'Camping' Meals and Farms for Food

Amid the coronavirus outbreak, demand climbs for shelf-stable food as well as meat and other goods directly from farmers

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Facing bare store shelves, long grocery delivery delays, and restaurants closing or shifting to takeout because of the coronavirus outbreak, more Americans are turning to food that might seem more at home next to a campfire, or they’re ordering straight from the farm.

Companies such as Patagonia, Backpacker’s Pantry, and Good To-Go, and farms such as White Oak Pastures in Georgia, have posted messages on their websites or have sent out emails detailing the increased demand they’re experiencing.

“Due to extremely high demand, meals temporarily out of stock are being updated constantly,” says a message on the homepage of Good To-Go, a Maine company that sells dehydrated meals such as kale and white bean stew.

“Our demand has been doubling by the day,” says Ashley Tyrner, founder and CEO of Farmbox Direct, a subscription service that ships boxes of fruits and vegetables from farms around the country. “It’s a mix of people who can’t find food on their store shelves and people, like seniors, who can’t get out of the house to shop."

Tyrner says the other day she helped a 92-year-old man figure out how to order online.

More on the Coronavirus

All this comes as the outbreak has created a rush on food that has left retailers from the local grocery store to Amazon wrestling with supply. Amazon even reportedly had to halt Prime Pantry grocery orders because it needed to restock.

The shift to what might be considered camping food makes some sense in these times—much of it has a long shelf life, which fits with today’s world, where it’s unclear just how long many Americans might need to stay at home. Plus, these companies now offer food that’s a step up and more diverse than the beef stroganoff in a bag you might remember pouring hot water over, tasting, and thinking, “Well, it’s all I have and I’m in the middle of nowhere.”

Patagonia Provisions, the food arm of the clothing retailer, has lemon caper mackerel in tins and wild-caught salmon seasoned with organic lemon pepper that’s ready to eat from the pouch.

And ordering from the farm may give some people comfort because they’re going straight to the source. Many farms specialize in grass-fed beef but also branch out into specialties like charcuterie or dishes such as spicy smoked-pork-sausage gumbo.

The Prices You'll Find

This fare, though, comes with what some may see as a hefty price tag. One 6-ounce fillet of the Patagonia lemon pepper salmon costs $14, while a single-serving packet of Indian vegetable korma at Good To-Go costs $7.25. The prices at meat purveyors vary but are on a par with what you’d pay at a high-end butcher. For example, a 1-pound grass-fed beef sirloin steak at White Oak Pastures costs $15.99.

But in today’s environment, some people are clearly willing to pay, perhaps in part to have as many choices as possible.

“You’ve probably stocked up on dry and frozen goods, and it’s easy to get into the habit of eating the same thing every day,” says Amy Keating, R.D., a Consumer Reports nutritionist. “But having a variety of healthy food on hand is important to make sure you’re getting an array of nutrients.”

Meat by Mail

“Many people are eating more plant-based meals—sales of dried legumes, in particular, have gone up,” Keating adds. “But people may still occasionally want to have poultry- or meat-based meals without having to go to the supermarket.”

And that’s exactly what some of these businesses specialize in.

“We usually ship about 500 boxes of meat a week,” says Jodi Harris Benoit, director of tourism for White Oak Pastures. The company, based in Bluffton, Ga., specializes in humanely and pasture-raised, grass-fed meat (pork, beef, lamb, goat, and rabbit) and poultry (geese, guinea hens, duck, chicken, and turkey). Online sales have quadrupled from normal levels.

“I think we have 780 open orders right now, and we’re about three days behind,” Benoit says. “People are buying what we have in stock, not necessarily what they have in the past. When the more commonly consumed items [like ground beef] are out of stock, orders still pour in for other items like stew meat and ground pork. It’s unlike anything we’ve seen before.”

Stemple Creek Ranch in Northern California, which sells pasture-raised pork and grass-fed and grass-finished beef and lamb, has seen a 300 to 400 percent rise in orders, with its beef butcher box and beef jerky box being the most popular.

“People are looking for a good quality product where they know exactly where it came from,” says co-owner Lisa Poncia. “It’s bringing us back to a simpler time.”

With some restaurants closing or forced to serve only takeout, meat companies that have traditionally served restaurants are shifting to retailers and consumers. One is D’Artagnan, which sells meat, poultry, and mushrooms from small sustainable farms.

“There’s been a big surge [in demand], but you can’t turn on the [supply] faucet overnight,” says Ariane Daguin, founder and CEO. For example, the company has seen a big increase in demand for chicken, but she says it takes at least 60 days to raise a chicken.

Seeking Shelf-Stable Foods

Troubled times often lead to more sales of nonperishable foods.

Outdoor outfitters like REI, Patagonia, and Cabela’s carry dehydrated and freeze-dried products, bars, smoked meat, and other foods typically targeted to backpackers, adventurers, and survivalists.

“I imagine our customer base is expanding due to COVID-19, with folks filling their pantries in preparation for what’s ahead,” says Jessica Clayton Davis, a spokeswoman for Patagonia. “But our existing customers are also coming back and placing larger-than-normal orders.”

You can find more than food that’s only meant to keep you fueled on a hike or a backpacking trip. At Good To-Go, for instance, the meals are created by chef and co-founder Jennifer Scism, who has worked at highly rated restaurants such as Bouley and Arcadia in New York City. Options include chicken gumbo, made with no-antibiotic chicken; New England Corn Chowdah with smoked fish; and vegan and vegetarian meals, such as herbed mushroom risotto and bibimbap. In addition to the fish offerings at Patagonia, it sells organic soups, coffee, and even maple syrup.

“Originally it was the campers and hikers who were drawn to Patagonia Provisions because it stemmed from Patagonia [clothing],” Davis says. “But it’s also really good for easy, healthy dinners for busy parents and others. It’s good for stocking your pantry, so it wasn’t that surprising when demand started increasing due to the current situation.”

Creativity on the Farm

Like grocery stores, farmers markets in some states, such as California and New York, have been classified as essential businesses, meaning they can stay open as other businesses are ordered closed. But farmers in some cases are pivoting.

“We’re definitely seeing farmers getting creative,” says Ben Feldman, executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition, which represents individuals and organizations that operate nearly 4,500 farmers markets and advocates on behalf of farmers markets across the U.S. “Small farmers are very adaptable and nimble folks, though. We’re seeing them do more with their CSAs [community supported agriculture], adding drop points and doing more door-to-door deliveries. They may be working with neighbors or working with other farms to put together box programs.”

The best way to find out what’s available in your area is to seek out your local farmers online. The FMC regularly posts updates about its member groups on its website and on social media.

Farmers markets, meanwhile, are putting measures in place to try to keep their customers safe.

“Markets are doing excellent social distance modeling,” says Reana Kovalcik, communications and outreach specialist for the coalition. “They’re capping numbers, letting people know where they should be standing, asking people not to touch food they don’t plan on buying, offering hand sanitizer, and using gloves.”

One tip: If you shop at a farmers market, try to go at uncrowded times, practice social distancing, and follow the same precautions you would if you went to a grocery store.

Janet Lee

Janet Lee, LAc, is an acupuncturist and a freelance writer in Kansas who contributes to Consumer Reports on a range of health-related topics. She has been covering health, fitness, and nutrition for the past 25 years as a writer and editor. She's certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine and Yoga Alliance, and is a trained Spinning instructor.