MBEP MEMBER SPOTLIGHT:
Aggrigator’s Farm-to-Shelf Marketplace Helps Build Healthy Food Systems
As the restaurant industry tailspinned in the early months of the pandemic, Aggrigator’s team worried over how deeply the fallout would be felt. For a small startup that’s built a farm-to-shelf marketplace for small- and medium-size growers, the anxiety was well-founded. The Watsonville-based firm’s easy-to-use platform aggregates farmers to help them compete for commercial markets. and since specialty crops for restaurants make up a significant percentage of those commodities, things looked pretty uncertain.
“Like everybody else, we had to zig and zag when the pandemic came,” says Karen Marie Feliz, Aggrigator’s vice president of supply. The company’s small but dedicated team shifted from worrying about whether they would be able to continue putting food on their own tables to addressing food insecurity, both locally and across the nation.
For the next year, the company funneled those crops — specialty and otherwise — into 20-pound food boxes for the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program. Distributed through food banks and community organizations, those boxes of agricultural products proved a godsend to disadvantaged people across the country as well as to the many small- and mid-sized farmers who might have gone out of business otherwise.
Aggrigator also distributed food boxes through The Emergency Food Assistance Program run by the USDA, and through a local food assistance program. More than 250,000 boxes of healthy food were delivered safely to recipients’ doorsteps via Doordash.
In the next few weeks, Aggrigator will roll out RX Boxes, a new program of medically tailored meals, in conjunction with local healthcare providers.
Through all these programs and its own community donations, Aggrigator’s small team has distributed nearly 1.5 million food boxes since the start of the pandemic.
Aggrigator’s “Farm to Shelf Marketplace” is critically important for small acreage growers, giving them a voice and a presence in a commercial marketplace that frequently demands greater volume than any one of them could individually produce, says Feliz. When a restaurant, school, grocery store, or other commercial buyer needs to buy a load of produce, Aggrigator might consolidate product from four or five growers, who typically grow a few dozen acres at most, to provide the volume and consistency of fresh, local produce from a single source. Through Aggrigator, those farmers also get access to quality assurance, pesticide advising, crop planning, and financing resources, with the goal of helping them become more sustainable and solvent companies.
“The decision to join MBEP, to work with people who are so involved in the community, those relations are going to be key for us,” says Feliz. “There are a lot of resources out there to be tapped, and if there’s money out there, and there’s a need, we’re here to bring it all together,” says Feliz. “That’s what MBEP does for us — the support we’ve received from MBEP has been incredible.”
The pandemic, inflation and supply disruptions are creating more food insecurity than ever, says Aggrigator Senior Project Manager Louie Diaz-Infante Jr. “We’re filling that gap,” he says. “That’s our mission and our passion, to help feed underserved communities.”
Even when he was hospitalized for 10 days with COVID-related pneumonia, Diaz-Infante found himself working from his hospital bed. “This is not like we’re delivering a load of strawberries to a supermarket,” he says. “This is going to people that are going hungry.”
Feliz echoes that dedication. “If you’re hungry, that’s our job to feed you, and in the interim, it helps our farmers feed their families because they have a place for their product.”
Pictured, Aggrigator CEO Doug Peterson helps distribute food boxes.