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The Fight to Keep Farmers’ Markets Open During Coronavirus

Originally published on March 19, 2020 by Civil Eats. Written by Twilight Greenaway.

Alexandra Jones contributed reporting from Philadelphia.

At the downtown Berkeley Farmers’ Market last Saturday, shoppers showed up in droves, despite the cold, rainy weather. There were no samples, no musicians, and most vendors were wearing gloves. Many sold everything they had, which is unusual for March, when the fruit is scant and many of the farms bring the same arrays of greens, root vegetables, and onions.

“It’s a good thing we’re busy, since this could be the last market for a while,” a Riverdog Farm cashier told a customer draped in rain gear.

And his fear was not unwarranted. Just the day before, the city of Seattle—where the spread of coronavirus began earlier and is further along than in most other parts of the U.S.—had announced that all farmers’ markets would close for at least a month. Seattle suspended all large gatherings and the markets have been lumped together with parades and public parties.

As the Neighborhood Markets Market Alliance, a nonprofit that runs seven markets around Seattle, wrote in their announcement to customers: “Farmers’ markets are frequently caught in loopholes—neither retail nor gathering, neither business nor building—which made waiting for this guidance essential to verifying our closure.”

Jennifer Antos, the organization’s executive director, had fielded multiple calls from reporters that week, as she waited for the decision to come down. “We really believe that farmers’ markets are an essential food source for the community. And we have a commitment to keeping them open as long as possible,” said Antos at the time. Not only was she carrying the weight of her customers’ needs on her shoulders, but she also had hundreds of farmers’ livelihoods in mind.

As the growing season in Washington is just preparing to ramp up, Antos knows that growers are in the midst of buying and planting seeds, and planning for their busy time of year. Losing the opportunity to sell at farmers’ markets, on top of loss of sales to restaurants and institutions like schools, could be a devastating blow.

Antos is just one of thousands of market managers around the country who have been pushing to keep their markets open as state, city, and county lawmakers across the nation weigh the pros and cons of doing so. At the heart of the matter is the question of what exactly a farmers’ market is, and—perhaps more importantly—what it can be for a community.

While many markets have cultivated the look and feel of an outdoor event—especially in the summer months, when the weather is warm and families often linger to eat lunch, enjoy music, learn about their local farmers, or take cooking classes—many advocates say that fact shouldn’t limit their current function.

“[Bringing people together] has traditionally been part of what’s great about farmers’ markets. But what’s also great about farmers’ markets is their flexibility and their nimbleness. So, now they can become emergency food access points,” said Wes King, a senior policy specialist at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC).

Do Farmers’ Markets Provide Essential Services?

Over the weekend, when California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that all bars and restaurants in the state were set to cease in-house services to help prevent the spread of the virus, Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) called on Newsom to declare farmers’ markets essential services, support new systems to allow direct-to-market farmers to access new distribution opportunities, and offer disaster assistance to small food hubs that provide critical aggregation and distribution services for those same farmers.

Evan Wiig, director of communications at CAFF, said, “Unless you’re going to enact the same restrictions on Trader Joe’s [and other grocery stores], it doesn’t make sense to close farmers’ markets.” (CAFF is currently surveying farmers in the state about the impact of coronavirus.)

Since Monday night, Bay Area residents in eight counties have been directed to shelter in place, and the question of farmers’ markets role has been critical. People have been told to stay in their homes except when accessing “essential services,” and market managers and farmers were relieved to see a handful of those counties, including San Francisco, Alameda, and Santa Mateo (the epicenter of Silicon Valley) include farmers’ markets alongside grocery stores, food banks, and corner stores as places deemed essential.

That same day, the California Alliance of Farmers’ Markets sent the California Department of Public Health and Governor Newsom a letter signed by hundreds of farmers, organizations, and other concerned citizens urging the agency to issue “a statement affirming the essential role Certified Farmers’ Markets play for California’s farmers, economy, and communities across the state, and equating Certified Farmers’ Markets with grocery stores and other retail outlets for the purposes of COVID-19 containment policies.”

The letter argued that farmers’ markets are the product of a shortened supply chain, meaning the food passes through far fewer hands than at other retail outlets, markets take place in the open air with space to move away from people if needed, market trips at this time can be brief, averaging around 20 to 30 minutes, and that the temporary nature of the booths allows for easy cleaning and less contact with people.

Carle Brinkman, who directs the food and farming program at the Berkeley-based Ecology Center (which runs three year-round markets) and oversees the California Alliance of Farmers’ Markets, says farmers were by far the largest group to sign the letter.

“It was pretty inspiring to see that,” said Brinkman. “For many of the farmers who sell at the farmers’ market, it’s their main source of income.” As restaurant sales disappear and many look to boost their community supported agriculture (CSA) business for people practicing social distancing, the presence of a market, “could mean the difference between surviving as a business and not.”

At a time when many low-income and newly unemployed people will likely be struggling with food access, farmers’ markets are also seen as one of a small number of places to buy affordable fruits and vegetables.

In California that need is met by Market Match, a program offered at almost 300 sites that provided $5 million dollars of funding at farmers’ markets by low-income consumers last year. But many cities and states have their own version of produce matching programs for low-income populations.

“Over the last 15 to 20 years, farmers’ markets have been at the forefront of ensuring healthy food is available to all Americans and piloting innovative projects to make sure that happens,” said Ben Feldman, executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition (FMC), which works with markets around the country. “We’d hate to see that important work undermined by lack of clear guidance for farmers’ markets in terms of when they can be open and when they can’t.”

Brie Mazurek, communications director for the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), the organization that runs San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, also points to the way farmers’ markets stand to fill much-needed gaps in our food infrastructure in the coming months.

“There are a lot of empty shelves in grocery stores right now, and when you think about community food resilience, farmers’ markets are so important,” said Mazurek. “We definitely don’t want any of that food getting wasted in the field at this time when people need to access healthy food.”

Ever-Shifting Ground

The same day the shelter-in-place order dropped in the Bay Area, the California Department of Food and Agriculture issued guidance for farmers’ markets operating during COVID-19, and the state’s department of public health did the same. But leaving the decision to keep California markets open to the city and county level has resulted in a patchwork of different approaches. In Petaluma, north of San Francisco, and several other locations, for instance, there is a cap on the number of people who can attend the market at one time.

Many markets are on public property, as well as on university or college campuses have been closed.

In Southern California, San Diego Markets, a company that runs three markets around the city, was told its permits had been cancelled. On Tuesday, Catt Fields White, the company’s CEO said she was having a hard time getting a response from the city as to why exactly they couldn’t open the markets. At the time, she responded to an emailed request for comment by saying: “This is hurting the public. We are talking to people who are frantic to obtain fresh food. People with already compromised immune systems are nervous about the lack of availability of food they rely on to stay healthy in the best of times.”

Then, on Wednesday, the city reversed course.

Fields White said having guidelines from the state department of public health that listed farmers’ markets right beside grocery stores most likely helped matters.

“Our county followed that by putting out some official guidelines late yesterday that helped give the Mayor’s and Special Event offices a path to allow modified markets. They’re watching very closely as we operate the first one on Saturday, with [local police and environmental health department] inspectors on site to monitor compliance,” she said, adding that there would be “big penalties if we can’t control the crowd.”

In the Philadelphia area, the ground was also shifting fast. The farmers’ markets run by Food Trust have remained open, but Farm to City, which runs five year-round markets in the city and suburbs, has closed theirs. Last Wednesday, farmers’ market program manager Jon Glyn felt comfortable moving forward with weekend markets on the guidance of Philadelphia Department of Public Health officials as long as vendors followed guidelines. But on Monday, Farm to City sent an email notifying vendors that the markets on Saturday, March 21 would be cancelled.

“Our decision was based on the general directions we’re all hearing from the local governments and the federal government, based also on our observations over the weekend of customers not practicing social distancing, and our own general wishes for the good health and well-being of our producers and shoppers,” Glyn wrote in an email on Monday afternoon. Like many of the organizations that have closed markets, Farm to City is exploring using market staff and locations as drop points for farmers to get their products to customers.

Then, on Tuesday afternoon, the City of Philadelphia issued clarifying language around what constitutes an essential food business, with farmers’ markets explicitly listed among businesses that would be allowed to operate during the lockdown. It’s still not clear whether Farm to City will reopen their markets, however.

“It feels like an important part of the community to keep going through this kind of event.”

“People need to eat, and this is our produce,” said Taproot Farm owner Ola Creston, who farms 25 acres with her husband, George Brittenburg, about 90 minutes outside Philadelphia. “You know where it comes from, it’s traceable, and we follow food safety protocols. It feels like an important part of the community to keep going through this kind of event.”

“Sales were great [over the weekend], but boy are we worried,” she said. “George and I keep trying to work through a Plan B, but it’s like we need a Plan F.”

The Need for Federal Support for Farmers’ Markets

In addition to Pennsylvania, lawmakers in Maryland, New York, Connecticut, and Minnesota have all made statements asserting that farmers’ markets are essential services, which bodes well for markets in those states. (New York’s Green Markets have managed to stay open for instance). But what’s needed, say sustainable food advocates, is broader federal support for farmers’ markets and the farmers they support.

According to Feldman at the Farmers Market Coalition, federal guidance to affirm that farmers’ markets are essential services—“in one fell swoop across the country”—is still needed.

And although the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has shown interest in supporting local food efforts in the past, it doesn’t appear to see the current farmers’ market discussion as one it should influence.

“USDA does not have authority over market entities,” a spokesperson fro the agency told Civil Eats. “Local governments will determine whether to open or keep a farmers’ market open based on its coronavirus response and what it considers essential services.”

FMC, NSAC, and the Harvard Law School Food and and Policy Clinic have released a number of suggestions to support farmers’ markets nationally as part of a larger set of recommendations aimed at influencing lawmakers to step up and support small producers as they consider passing another set of stimulus packages.

In addition to provide emergency disaster payment to small and beginning farmers selling direct to consumers, advocates also hope to see the matching fund requirement removed for several federal programs that make farmers’ markets more accessible to seniors and low-income consumers, among other things.

Feldman says Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Antonio Delgado (D-New York) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) all expressed initial interest in supporting such an effort in Congress.

“[Small farmers] are impacted by coronavirus, but they’re also a big part of the solution,” said NSAC’s King. “This is part of what the value in some of the resilience built into local and regional food systems is. So we’re working on trying to influence the narrative in a positive direction.”

One of King’s chief concerns is that not everyone writing federal policy will understand that, by and large, the farmers who sell in farmers’ markets are not those who received recent government payouts.

“Most commodity farms have access to a whole host of different safety net programs and emergency programs. But there really is very little [safety net] available to the type of farm that selling at farmers’ markets, restaurants, and schools,” said King. If the unique needs small farmers selling direct to consumers aren’t considered, he added, “this could be a moment that we look back on years from now as a crippling blow to farmers’ markets, and local food in general.”

King and others also have their eyes on the larger patterns of consolidation in the food system—along with just about every other industry—that many worry is likely to pick up speed in the wake of the coronavirus. As many farmers are nearing retirement age, it may be more feasible for many of them to sell their operations to larger farms than to stick it out through the remainder of the pandemic, which could last over a year, some experts have said.

“Crisis can be opportunities to do creative and innovative, progressive things,” said King. “They can also be the opportunity for consolidation. And we’ve already seen so much consolidation within the food and farm sector. The worry is this crisis will create an opportunity for more.”

Demand and Gratitude Are Constants, Despite Flux

Everyone Civil Eats spoke to agreed that demand for farmers’ markets and local food in general probably isn’t going anywhere, despite all the other things that the coronavirus has changed so quickly for people around the U.S. and beyond.

For this reason, many market organizations are helping farmers quickly pivot—whether that means replacing markets sales or supplementing them. Whether it’s creating new opportunities for curbside produce pick-ups, helping producers find ways to sell their crops online, or offering their own aggregated online sales, farmers’ market organizers clearly have their hands full.

But the recent crowds at many markets around the country illustrate that localized food distribution has a role to play in this current moment—however it gets to consumers. And it’s also possible that many consumers will emerge from the coming months with a newfound appreciation for farmers’ markets and their role in feeding people and supporting small-scale farmers.

“Many of our dedicated shoppers tell us this is their main way of accessing food,” said CUESA’s Mazurek. “And for the last few weeks, [as other businesses have closed] we’ve been getting a lot of feedback about how grateful they are that we’re still open.”

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