Farmers Markets Get Creative During COVID-19 Pandemic

As the U.S. adapts to COVID-19 precautions, farmers markets and vendors are finding inventive ways to safely connect customers to locally grown food.

by Sharon Biggs Waller
PHOTO: Ami Gignac

With many states announcing social-distancing directives in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, farmers’ markets are having to rethink their spring openings. And they’re coming up with some imaginative alternatives during the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Farmers’ markets are deemed essential business. For the most part, they have been allowed to stay open, but, across the country, shoppers are arriving to find some new experiences.

Coronavirus & California Markets

In California, leaders are grappling with keeping market shoppers safe in ravaged communities.

On March 30th, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the closure of all farmers markets in LA after crowds descended on markets during the prior weekend, ignoring the social distancing guidelines.

The mayor says that the markets will be able to re-open. First, however, he needs plans on how organizers intend to keep the market safe.

Markets in nearby California cities, such as Culver City and Santa Monica, have remained open by enacting precautions.

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Culver City is providing a hand-washing station and has limited the amount of vendors, removing 55 from the total. The booths are kept ten feet apart.

Organizers discourage customers from socializing or dawdling. Both markets have a one-entrance policy.

You can keep an egg business going during the novel coronavirus response.

Adapting Big-City Markets

The New York Times recently reported on ways the 50 farmers markets throughout New York City—the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S.—are adapting to keep customers safe. Measures include protective gear for vendors, customer bans on touching produce and an intense protocol for keeping shoppers 6 feet apart.

Not-for-profit Green City Market is Chicago’s largest (over three locations) year-round farmers’ market, connecting chefs and the community with locally sourced, healthy foods.

But with Governor Jay Pritzker’s shelter-in-place order, Green City has stepped up to help their vendors, hosting an online virtual market on their website.

“In this unprecedented time, the market and its farmers remain committed to offering nutritious, local, sustainably grown food. And that’s why the market and many of the farmers and artisans are willing to come to you,” says Bill Kurtis, founding board member of the market.

(Yes, that Bill Kurtis. You’d recognize his voice from Cold Case Files and Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me.)

The website lists over two dozen family farms and artisanal producers, ready to fill orders (pickup or delivery) and answer any questions.

Buyers can visit the website and click on the vendor’s picture. There they will find the business’ bio, links, and further information.

Kurtis also put together a video about the market’s plans.

Smaller Markets Respond, Too

It’s not just large-city markets adjusting to keep shoppers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Smaller farmers markets are adapting to connect customers to locally grown food in a safe manner.

The 25-year-old Haymaker Farmers’ Market in Kent, Ohio, opened their market on March 21st as a drive-through. The moved followed Governor Mike DeWine’s mandated stay-at-home order.

Until at least April, Haymaker customers will stay in their cars, driving through a line of vendors. Although not required, organizers of the market encourage people to place orders with the vendor in advance to keep the line moving.

“When Ohio Gov. DeWine mandated the cancellation of events with 50 people or more, we knew our indoor farmers market would have to be cancelled,” says Haymaker board member Ami Gignac.”But we were determined to connect local people with local food. A CSA model would require an online platform that we couldn’t afford. And collecting and packing orders would take time and manpower we don’t have. But wait, why not a drive-through?

“Within four days we recruited more than 10 vendors and four volunteers and used the power of social media and our digital newsletter to spread the word. The first week we served 150 cars and the second week we served over 200 cars in less than three hours. Vendors raved that they experienced record sales!”

Shoppers can find a list of participating vendors (updated as business join in) on the market’s website. There’s also a list of vendors who have opted not to participate in the drive-through market.

Each vendor provides instructions on how to order, such as via online, curbside pickup, Etsy shops or even meal delivery services.

Here are some fun farm things to fill the time while you’re staying in place.

What About the Farmers?

Farmers, too, have had to get creative during this unprecedented time.

Emily Kwilos of Kwilos Farms takes her produce to several farmers markets in western New York. She’s very active at her stand, offering tips and helping people choose goods.

But without her regular in-person service, she and her husband, Joey, have come up with an alternative.

“We’re discussing offering curbside plant packs for flowers, such as a sunny butterfly garden or a deer-tolerate shade annual pack,” she says.

“All of these would include a quick sketch for instructions. We’ve also thought about moving everything from our shop to outside benches. This would limit shopping to fair weather, but it would help keep distance between customers.”

Family farms and producers count on buyers in order to thrive and continue to serve the community. So regular customers have to adapt to COVID-19 pandemic precautions as vendors implement them.

But, as Sara Stegner, co-chef and co-owner of Prairie Grass Café in Northbrook, Illinois, and founding member of Green City Market, points out, these changes are all aimed at something fundamentally important: protecting access to fresh, healthy and locally grown food.

“To me, it’s very important that we keep access to local, sustainable food,” she says. “By purchasing from the farmers, it ensures that we will have access in future years.”

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