Every year on the first Saturday of May, the Des Moines Downtown Farmers’ Market ceremoniously opens with a ringing of colorful cowbells, drawing crowds of roughly 25,000 people, city residents, travelers from nearby counties and tourists all eager to shop from the market’s nearly 300 vendors. The Downtown Farmers’ Market, regularly listed as one of the top markets in the country, covers nine of Des Moines’ city blocks with tents of farmers, bakers, food trucks, artisans and musicians. On Saturdays from May through October, this market is the place to be in Des Moines; locals come early to buy their weekly goods and to catch up with their neighbors over a cup of coffee, and many vendors count it among their key points of sales for the year.
But on May 2nd, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 opening ceremony was held virtually instead. Around 17,000 viewers tuned in to a Facebook Live webcast as Market Director Kelly Foss rang her cowbell at 8 am, leading a slim crew in an opening ceremony, virtually signifying how different this year’s market would be. Like many markets around the country, the Downtown Farmers’ Market had reassessed their 2020 plans and, even though the physical meeting space downtown plays a key role in their community and for their vendors’ sales, they decided to postpone their live opening indefinitely.
Moving a Farmers’ Market Online
Across the country, the pandemic is straining the ability of farmers’ market operators to keep markets open: according to a survey done by the Farmers’ Market Coalition, 93 percent of markets reported added costs to operate and 74 percent reported decreased income.
In order to reduce these costs and losses, the Downtown Farmers’ Market initially focused on connecting market-goers to the vendors outside of the market space. Along with the opening bell and a celebratory toast, the May 2nd webcast featured more than a dozen of the market’s vendors, including a combination of live and pre-recorded interviews detailing how customers could reach and place orders with vendors, which payment methods each vendor accepted, and how deliveries or pick-ups were handled. “It was about making sure our customers knew how to find our vendors,” says Foss, “because they usually found them during the market, and [we realized] they might not even know the name of their favorite vendor, they may just know where they are located, what spot they are at at the market and what products they have.”
In their first live stream, the team recreated some sense of being at the market, using a combination of recorded segments and live Zoom conversations with farmers, bakers, producers and artisans. Randy Schnebbe, who has been selling at the Downtown Farmers’ Market for 23 years, gave a virtual tour off his farm studio, RS Welding Studio. “The farmers’ market has been tremendous for us,” says Schnebbe during his segment. “We get connected with so many people. We’ve met so many friends there, it’s almost like another family.”
But despite the best efforts of the Downtown Farmers’ Market team, who aired two additional Saturday webcasts in May, Foss says they found connecting consumers directly with these vendors — who are spread over 50 of Iowa’s 99 counties — challenging. “So we created an online marketplace, with over 130 of our vendors participating,” she says. “Customers can now shop for their farmers’ market products online including a variety of products such as meat, eggs, cheese and baked goods.”
For many of the vendors, especially those not already equipped with a website or online sales platform, the virtual marketplace was a huge boon, explains Foss. In exchange for a monthly fee, which helps support the cost of the online service, the Downtown Farmers’ Market team helped participating vendors get up and running. The online marketplace has streamlined the ordering process, bringing consumers to a central place much like the downtown location did for the physical market. The delivery methods are still at the vendors’ discretion, however, leaving the process flexible; some are shipping goods across the state, some are offering curbside pick-up, some are making deliveries.
“I feel like they are very appreciative of any opportunity to connect with customers,” says Foss. “They have definitely voiced appreciation for having a place to list all of their products and an easy place for customers to shop.”
The Challenges of a Virtual Market
Although the virtual market does connect consumers to their favorite products and vendors, there are still a few challenges that the Downtown Farmers’ Market’s virtual space —and other virtual markets around the country — face.
With the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic and shutdown orders, many consumers have been slow to adjust their shopping habits. “I think we all kind of held out hope that [the market would] come back and we’d be able to go with restricted numbers and maybe more social distancing,” says Des Moines resident and Downtown Farmers’ Market regular attendee Lauren Grant. “I think there was some hope that we’d be able to continue to do it in the summer, so a lot of people took a little bit of time to realize you can shop online. But once the virtual market got up and running, it slowly became more popular.”
And as Foss mentioned, many farmers’ market attendees knew their favorite produce seller or mushroom forager by location in the market, not by name. Grant was unable to track down some of her favorite vendors. “It’s really become important for me now to understand who these people are and their business name so that I can support them outside of the market,” she says.
Supporting Farmers Through Turbulent Times
The videos also showed the Farmers’ Market team that their customers had an interest in more information about their producers and farmers than they realized. Comments from the webcasts include enthusiastic variations of: “I’m learning about so many cool vendors that I didn’t know about before.” Thanks to the videos’ popularity, Foss’s team has continued these spotlights on social media and their blog, helping Iowa shoppers connect with vendors they might not have been aware of in previous years.
For Grant, the virtual marketplace provides a way to continue to support this community as it moves towards what she thinks will be a new norm. “When farmers’ markets do come back, this will be a great way for people to still shop,” she says. “Maybe senior citizens or people who have kids, people that don’t want to go to the market but still want fresh produce.”
According to Foss, that’s exactly the intent. “I feel like this online marketplace can grow with the market,” she says. And that growth is already underway, as Foss and her team are still hopeful they can do more in the 2020 season. To start, they are launching a drive-through market, which will allow customers to pre-order items through the website, which they can pick-up at a condensed, drive-through market beginning Saturday, August 8th. The event is set to continue through October. It’s unclear if there will be any additional changes to the 2020 plans, but it is clear that the Des Moines community is proudly and strongly supporting its farmers and food producers the best it can. “I feel like because we can’t have a live market, this is the next best way to make it work,” says Foss, “connecting consumers to healthy food and making sure we are supporting small businesses.”
Farmers’ Market Meal Planning
Last fall, I set out to show that farmers’ market shopping is less expensive than often thought with this $50 meal plan for five weeknight dinners. This year, I’ve shopped the Des Moines market online to find some of the best deals summer markets have to offer. Using produce like sweet corn, herbs and zucchini in multiple ways lets you spend less and enjoy more flavor.
When shopping at the farmers’ market there are a few things to keep in mind if saving money is a top priority. First off, have a plan, keeping in mind that ingredients that can be used in multiple ways — such as radishes, which have edible greens, and corn, that has useful husks and cobs — are more cost-effective. Secondly, shop for deals. In my research last fall, I found that prices could vary greatly from vendor to vendor: for green bell peppers, for instance, prices ranged from $2.00 to $3.25 per pound. Shopping the market for the best prices can save you money. And lastly, use everything up. When you prepare zucchini noodles, you’ll have some end pieces. Don’t toss those! They’ll go into the quiche later in the week. Cook smart and every bite can be used.
With all those things in mind, I present our $50 summer farmers’ market haul meal plan. This menu makes five weeknight summer dinners for two. However, most of the recipes I pull from serve four people, so if your budget allows, you can prepare the full recipe and enjoy many of the leftovers for lunch, etc. If you shop and cook from the meal plan, the FoodPrint team would love to hear from you. Share your pics on social with the tag #foodprinthaul, and let us know how it goes.
Summer Farmers Market Meal Plan
Monday: Grilled Corn Soup and cucumber-yogurt-herb salad
“I love that I can eat in-season by shopping at the market,” says Foss. In July, especially in Iowa, that means sweet corn. (Grant specifically recommends peaches and cream corn, a sweet variety with yellow and white kernels.) Start the week by making a batch of this refreshing grilled corn soup, which makes use of the entire corn stalk by using the cobs, husk and silks to make a sweet stock base for the soup. Substitute the sour cream with yogurt (reducing the number of ingredients to buy), use radish greens instead of cilantro, and if you can’t find lime at your farmers’ market, top with a dollop of jarred green salsa instead. Only use half the feta cheese (1/4 cup) to top the soup, the remaining will go in Thursday’s frittata.
For an easy side dish, try this crisp charred cucumber salad; you can grill the cucumbers as well, or broil them if you prefer. Whisk a mix of basil and radish tops into yogurt to create the finishing sauce, and save any leftover yogurt sauce for Wednesday’s dinner.
Food waste tips: Grill an extra corn cob and cucumber and reserve 1 cup corn and 1 cucumber for Tuesday night’s dinner. This soup recipe serves 4, so if you make a whole batch, enjoy the leftovers for Tuesday’s lunch. Turn the leftover corn cobs into pot scrubbers!
Tuesday: Zoodle Grilled Vegetable Caprese Salad
One of Foss’s favorite ways to use farmers’ market produce during the summer is by making Caprese salad, the classic combination of tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cheese and basil. She’s lucky that even with the Downtown Farmers’ Market’s virtual market, she can still pick-up her favorite fresh mozzarella. She’s also a big fan of spiralized zucchini, so why not put the two together with a zucchini-noodle Caprese salad? If you don’t have a spiralizer (a tool that cuts vegetables into curly “noodle” shapes), you can thinly slice or grate the zucchini into strips to create a noodle-like texture. To make the meal more filling, add in the leftover cup of grilled corn and extra cucumber from Monday night. You can use all zucchini or use half zucchini and half summer squash for color variation.
Food waste tips: If you use a spiralizer, you will have odds and ends that cannot be pushed through the tool. Save these and other zucchini scraps for Thursday’s quiche.
Wednesday: Chili-Lime Chicken with Glazed Peaches and Spinach Salad with Ginger-Pickled Radishes
For your midweek meal, spotlight summer peaches with this chicken and glazed peaches recipe, which can be made with chicken pieces or a whole roasted chicken depending on your preference and availability. If you purchased salsa at the market for Monday’s dinner, skip the spices and lime in this recipe and use the salsa as your chicken marinade. While the chicken is cooking, make a quick half-batch of ginger-pickled radishes to toss with spinach for a side salad. (Leave out the Thai chiles if you can’t find them; crushed red pepper flakes can be used as a substitute for a more mild heat.) Whisk oil, salt, pepper and a squeeze of honey (or a pinch of sugar, depending on what you have in the pantry) for a quick vinaigrette to dress the salad, and serve the chicken with the leftover yogurt sauce from Monday.
Food waste tip: If you roast a whole chicken, save the leftovers for Friday’s dinner. Reserve leftover chicken carcass for stock. Save leftover pickling liquid for future pickling projects.
Thursday: Zucchini-Spinach Crustless Quiche, Green Beans and Herb Salsa Verde
A casserole like a quiche, frittata or stuffing is another easy weeknight dinner that can show off summer farmers’ market produce and is a great waste-free recipe for using up produce. For Thursday night, use the leftover zucchini, onion and spinach pieces to make a crustless quiche, using up the remaining 1/4 cup feta and 1/2 cup mozzarella and using the remaining yogurt instead of milk. While the quiche bakes, roughly chop up the remaining radish leaves and basil and mix with oil, chopped garlic, salt, pepper and some of the leftover pickling liquid from Wednesday night to make a simple fresh herb salsa verde. Blanch a pound of trimmed green beans, chill, and toss with the salsa to serve alongside the quiche.
Food waste tip: Enjoy leftover quiche for Friday’s lunch. Reserve remaining salsa verde for Friday’s dinner.
Friday: Farmers’ Market Panzanella
Keep the end of the week dinner prep easy with a use-it-all-up Panzanella recipe. Use the leftover herb sauce as a base for your vinaigrette, mixing it with a pinch of honey, oil and more pickling liquid as needed. Shred the remaining chicken from Wednesday, dice the remaining 2 peaches and combine with the leftover grilled vegetables and 1 pint heirloom baby tomatoes in a large salad bowl. Toss with toasted, cubed bread and vinaigrette; set the salad aside for roughly 30 minutes to allow flavors to blend before serving.
Food waste tip: This is a great time to use any produce hiding in the fridge. Give new life to vegetables starting to sag by tossing them on the grill. Panzanella is best eaten the day of, so only toss together what you’ll consume; store bread, vinaigrette and other ingredients separately to eat the next day.
Recipe: Grilled Corn Soup
Sherri Brooks Vinton
This soup is a riff on the Mexican grilled corn dish elote. The corn is first grilled, then the cobs are used to make a flavorful stock for the soup, making the most of the whole vegetable.
6 ears sweet corn
1 poblano chili
3 tablespoons neutral oil, divided
1 medium onion, chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1/4 cup sour cream, divided
1/2 teaspoon smoked chili powder (such as ancho chili powder or smoked paprika)
1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
2 tablespoons cilantro, finely chopped
1 lime, quartered
1. Fill a stockpot with cold water and soak corn for at least 10 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the grill to medium. Remove corn from pot and drain excess water. Grill, turning frequently until husks begin to scorch and corn is tender, 10-12 minutes. Remove corn from the grill and set aside to cool.
2. Meanwhile, coat the poblano in 1 tablespoon of oil and grill, turning frequently, until charred all over, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl and cover. When cool enough to handle, remove the skins, ribs and seeds from the poblano and chop.
3. When corn is cool, remove the husks and silk and cut kernels off the cob, reserving cobs.
Place cobs in a stockpot, cover with cold water and simmer for 1 hour. Remove cobs and boil cooking water to reduce to 1 quart, if necessary.
4. Combine stock with half the corn kernels in a blender and puree until smooth. Heat remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in a medium pot over medium heat and cook onion, seasoned with salt and pepper, stirring occasionally, until translucent, 5-7 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute more. Add the stock mixture, remaining corn kernels and chopped poblano and simmer for 10 minutes.
5. Remove from heat and whisk in 2 Tbsp. sour cream. Adjust seasoning and divide soup between bowls.
6. Combine the remaining 2 tablespoons of sour cream and chili powder. Garnish each soup bowl a dollop of the sour cream mixture, 1 tablespoon of cheese, cilantro and lime wedges.
Poblano, corn and corn stock can be prepared 3 days ahead. Cover and chill.
Top photo by weyo/ Adobe Stock.