The COVID-19 outbreak forced food retailers to make many changes, but in states where they were allowed to remain open, farmers’ markets were quick to adapt to the challenges of social distancing and emerged as one of the safest places to shop during a pandemic. While markets face difficulties ahead, they’ve been critical support to farmers through the crisis. Now, as the country questions what a more just society looks like, farmers’ markets are emerging as an opportunity to invest in a safer and more equitable food system.

Adapting to the New Normal

As states across the country started to impose stay-at-home orders that closed all but essential businesses, many wondered whether farmers’ markets would make the cut. This guidance varied from state to state: some quickly declared farmers’ markets essential, while others took time.

Debbie Burns, CEO of the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market in New Mexico, noted the early uncertainty: “within the first week we really had to push to figure out if we could stay open, then we had to really rush to figure out how.” Still, she notes they were successful at implementing social distancing in the market. Many markets around the country instituted similar kinds of precautions: having vendors pick out and handle items to reduce contact, and spacing customers in checkout lines at least six feet apart. Some, like the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City, set barriers around the market and limited attendance to a set number of customers.

Early sales, which surged in the spring for vendors at markets across the country, seemed to reflect confidence in these precautions. Michael Hurwitz, director of Food Access and Agriculture at GrowNYC, which manages farmers’ markets in New York City, attributes this success to GrowNYC’s efforts to prioritize safety, which also extended to the market staff, who have been receiving hazard pay since March. “When we prioritize health and safety for everyone,” he says, “we prioritize community, and I think we’ve successfully created one of the safest shopping experiences you can have.”

Financial Challenges for Farmers’ Markets on the Horizon

The companies and organizations that run the markets also face potential financial challenges. The Santa Fe Farmers’ Market, for example, gets a large share of its revenue from its cafe and gift shop, both of which have been operating at limited capacity since March, and the shutdown of tourism in the famously picturesque city means fewer people are in town to visit the market. Burns has applied for SBA loans to help weather the downturn, and says she’s optimistic about the future. She’s also been able to expand some market programs: the market’s CSA program has grown dramatically from 30 subscribers last year to nearly 300 this summer. The streamlined, contact-free pickup has brought new customers to the market, and it’s helped many vendors offset lost restaurant sales.

Non-profit markets like GrowNYC are also facing financial trouble. While they won’t be curtailing market operations in the foreseeable future, other programs, like youth-run farm stands and fresh food boxes are dependent on grants from city, state and local government. These programs benefit the community by giving youth summer jobs and addressing food insecurity, but they may be at risk as governments try to address budget shortfalls from the COVID-19 crisis.

A Hub for Social Justice Work in the Community

After months of slowed life in cities across the country, ongoing demonstrations for racial justice — sparked by the recent killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers — have radically changed the atmosphere in many cities. As thousands take to the streets to protest, they often occupy the same public spaces as farmers’ markets.

For GrowNYC, protesters are nothing new: “We’ve had marches coming through our markets for fifty years,” Hurwitz says. To him, the market is an important gathering place for the community where people have always come to learn and network, and he views the protests as an affirmation of the markets’ role in the community rather than as an interruption.

Although Santa Fe has seen smaller protests than larger cities, Burns notes that one march did cross through the market. Demonstrators engaged briefly with shoppers to draw attention to the cause: “they just wanted to be heard.”

For Hurwitz, both the pandemic and the waves of demonstrations have helped bring GrowNYC’s work into perspective as an important alternative to an industrialized and exploitative food system: “the market is a place where people can invest in an alternative to our current food system,” he says. The markets’ strict commitment to health put it at odds with the terrible conditions workers face in grocery stores and meatpacking plants. The local and sustainable food at the market is also an opportunity to divest from systemic racism we see in the industrialized food system, which exploits workers from Black and brown communities while causing disproportionate environmental degradation in areas where they live. Meanwhile, market programs like the youth farm stands bring culturally appropriate, nutritious food into low-income neighborhoods, helping communities of color reclaim their own food sovereignty.

While they’ve risen to the occasion of providing a safe space to shop during a pandemic, farmers’ markets have more to offer. Beyond their essential function as a place to buy food, markets across the country are also critical community spaces. Supporting them — by shopping, donating and advocating for them in government — is vital to building a better food system.

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