With the closure of the La Placita grocery store and the weekly farmers market in Downtown Peekskill due to the COVID-19 crisis, the city lost its only source of healthy fresh food supplies for those who can't easily travel beyond the city center.
The community was left in a tough spot. Taxis are hard to come by and expensive, public transport is inconvenient and problematic for social distancing, delivery and pick up services at the big grocery stores have stopped or are backed up for weeks, and the grocery stores themselves are crowded with people and potentially low in supplies.
John Sharp, owner of Birdsall House and Gleason's, and our partner in the RIDE! Peekskill initiative was contacted by Andy Stewart, Peekskill's City Manager, to see if there was anyway to fast track the RIDE! concept of technology driven local mobility (e-bikes, electric shuttles, and local taxi services all linked in one app) to help solve the towns growing food insecurity crisis.
John reached out to us and fellow partner Tom Walsh of Pedal Peekskill to see what was possible. A quick brainstorm session on Slack led us to the conclusion that fast tracking any sort of app or e-bike system similar to what we proposed for the Peekskill DRI (a $10 million grant from New York State to revitalize Downtown Peekskill) was simply not feasible -- after all, our whole idea was contingent on getting significant start-up funded from the state.
But we knew we could do something with our combined areas of expertise, and the idea to create a virtual pop-up market using Birdsall House as the base quickly surfaced. John thought he could tap into his restaurant's food suppliers to build boxes of food basics, Tom could provide e-bikes with trailers for local deliveries, and we knew that we could build an online storefront and promotional materials for social media.
A week after the idea was born, birdsallmarket.com was launched.
Birdsall Market is an online storefront where community members can easily browse the food box offerings while sheltering in place, and our delivery not only enables social distancing, it also provides employment for the displaced workers at Birdsall House and Gleason's.
Boxes range from the simple, like the Wholesome Grocery Box (pasta, eggs, milk, and toilet paper), to more robust meal kits like the Gleason's Family Pizza Box (Gleason's pizza dough, sauce, toppings). Additional boxes are in the works, and effort is being made to include more local food suppliers.
Customers shop on the website and must place their orders before 4pm on Wednesday for delivery or pick up between 1pm - 4pm on Friday. Delivery is available for $5, or customers can pick up their boxes from the Birdsall House Beer Garden. If the model proves to be successful, additional delivery/pick up days may be added.
In addition to providing Peekskill with a local option for fresh food with safe social distancing, we are also hoping that our quick implementation of Birdsall Market serves as an example to the state of the importance of hyper local digital infrastructure, the capabilities of the RIDE! team, and the need for flexible mobility options.
Despite its popularity with many citizens of Peekskill, we received some push back to the RIDE! concept from the state's DRI consultants who told us that the state does not consider technology projects to be "capital infrastructure" and that the state would prefer not to fund projects with wheels (like our e-bikes and electric shuttles).
We feel the COVID-19 crisis has proved this to be a flawed perspective. If anything, the crisis has proved the vital importance of digital technology as infrastructure -- think Zoom meetings, social media outreach, VPN for work from home, and of course, online storefronts that enable business to continue even after brick-and-mortar storefronts are shuttered. The RIDE! app, if it had existed during COVID-19, could have been a hyper local example of this digital infrastructure -- providing citizens with real-time access to mobility options, a directory of currently opened essential establishments, and a communication tool for broadcasting critical information.
One of the city manager's chief concerns after the grocery stores closed was the difficulty citizens were having getting taxi service to the grocery stores further afield. Our RIDE! proposal included getting local taxis on our app platform where they could be hailed and tracked much like Uber or Lyft, but at a hyper local level.
Having access to alternative mobility options is of equal importance.
In New York City, the COVID-19 caused Citi Bike trips to surge as people avoided crowded public transit to practice safe social distancing. If our e-bike system was in place, Peekskill residents who rely on public transit would have had another mobility option. Also, e-bikes and shuttles normally used for recreation could have been quickly repurposed for other uses -- like food delivery -- just as we're doing with Birdsall Market.