Originally published Thursday, August 20th 2020
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Alexandra LittleJohn, like many others, panicked and did everything in her power to avoid contracting and spreading the virus. A big part of that was staying out of stores and away from large groups of people.
Fresh Guys Produce, a Denver produce distributor, committed to keep their farmers in business despite the turbulent state of the economy. With many restaurants closed or serving at limited capacity, Fresh Guys had a surplus of produce so they started building boxes and selling them to customers directly out of their trucks.
LittleJohn, who was working as the Director of Wholesale for Ozo Coffee Company at the time, wanted to stay out of grocery stores but wanted to eat healthy and wanted to help others do the same. Thanks to a post on social media, she caught wind of what Fresh Guys was doing and was soon ordering upwards of 20 produce boxes per week for her friends, staff, and Ozo customers.
Soon after, LittleJohn was laid off, but thanks to support from friends far and wide, LittleJohn Produce Box Project was born.
For the community, by the community.
After being laid off, LittleJohn wanted to continue supporting Fresh Guys and buying boxes for others. So she turned to Facebook, and within weeks, friends donated their own money to buy boxes for those in need, offered spaces to be used as pickup locations, and helped spread the word. LittleJohn’s partner began building a website for the project, friends at Oatly and Torani got their companies to make sustaining donations, and another connected LittleJohn with the family coordinator at Valverde Elementary School, knowing there were families who relied on meal programs that were no longer running with schools being closed. LittleJohn began delivering boxes to families at the school and to local restaurant workers and baristas who were laid off and without income.
“I’ve just been surprised by the overwhelming support,” said LittleJohn, “Having so many people want to be a part of it; it’s overwhelming in the best way possible.”
But even after these donations, LittleJohn still had extra boxes, so she posted in a Denver COVID Support Facebook group and started leaving flyers at local bakeries, liquor stores and coffee shops to get the word out. Within weeks, people were buying, donating and requesting boxes through the website and LittleJohn started appearing at local farmers markets and popup events.
Building lifetime customers.
LittleJohn has learned a few things in her 10 year tenure in customer service and wholesale.
“If you’re nice to people, and you follow up with them they’ll be a customer for life — that’s what it’s about.”
This philosophy is how she’s turned happy customers into volunteers, amassing a team that assists with outreach, runs social media, helps with deliveries, and in the booth at weekly pickups and farmers markets.
“It’s not just about gathering customers, you have to support them. That’s what hospitality really is. It’s meeting peoples’ needs before they know that they have them.”
LittleJohn was already providing recipes and weekly tips for how to use the produce, but wanted to create more interactive content.
“I wanted to start creating how-to videos because that’s how I learn,” said LittleJohn. “I was also using this project as a way to test out ideas; it’s the time of ‘why not?’ My boyfriend used to be a videographer, so he has all of the equipment so we started making videos for social media.”
But it’s not just recipes and videos; at farmer’s markets, LittleJohn hands out stickers to children, dog treats for the pups, and even puts her cell phone number on flyers to encourage people to reach out to her directly with questions. Her desire to connect with and provide for others is the lifeblood of the project.
Feeding the community.
LittleJohn quickly learned it would be best to pursue 501(c)(3) status to become an official nonprofit organization. Doing so will help to expand the mission by supplying food to the elderly, those with disabilities, and those with long term illnesses. LittleJohn is also working on licensing the project’s model so others can build their own LittleJohn produce box project in other cities and states.
“I’m working on licensing the project so you could have a LittleJohn produce box project in your area, partner with one of your distributors, and help feed people in your area. We need to take care of our own backyards.”
If you’d like to support the project, here are a few ways you can do so:
- Subscribe! This helps provide consistent funds.
- Donate a box. Whether a one-time or weekly donation, this goes directly back to people.
- Give to the GoFundMe. This will help pay for lawyer fees, application fees, grant writers, pay delivery drivers, as well as donate more boxes to those in need.
- Spread the word. Just tell people about it! Follow LittleJohn on Instagram and Facebook and help get the word out.
While the project was borne of the pandemic, it is solving problems that have existed long before COVID.
“It’s not just during the pandemic that people are food-scarce. It’s not just during the pandemic that there’s food deserts or waste issues along the supply chain,” explains LittleJohn, “Making the project a nonprofit means this can continue.”