San Francisco’s Heart of the City Farmers’ Market has been an oasis of fresh, farm-direct produce in a neighborhood dominated by fast food and liquor stores since 1981. It makes a variety of local produce available to a diverse population of shoppers from around the city and provides income for 82 farmers and food artisans.
Each year, the market also matches low-income shopper’s produce purchases, resulting in $1.5 million in food assistance, making it the largest distributor of EBT of all farmers’ markets in California. COVID-19 has spiked demand for these services, to the point that lines now wrap around the block. Unfortunately, the virus has also strained the nonprofit’s budget and put all of that good work in jeopardy.
Farmers’ markets operators—the organizations and individuals who plan, coordinate, and run America’s farmers’ markets—are engaging in herculean efforts to protect their communities from COVID-19. In the case of Heart of the City, this means crowd control measures to limit the number of shoppers, pre-order options, and the elimination of sampling and touching produce before shopping, among other strategies.
Farmers’ markets have always been hubs for innovation. When farmers have opted or been forced out of the traditional supply chain, America’s 8,000 farmers’ markets have served as a lifeline to their businesses, filling a vital role to move their goods from field to plate. Now, in this time of crisis, these markets have had to devise rapid solutions. Apart from these efforts, emerging research suggests sunlight effectively kills COVID-19, adding more support to the idea that farmers’ markets may be the safest place to shop for groceries during the pandemic.
“There are benefits to visiting a farmers’ market in light of coronavirus … you’re outside, there’s fresh air moving, and the supply chain is shorter,” Yvonne Michael, an epidemiologist at Drexel University School of Public Health, told WHYY recently.
But keeping these markets safe is very expensive for the organizations that run them. For example, Heart of the City market expects to lose almost $200,000 by the end of the year because of a drop in attendance by vendors, who pay a modest fee to participate. These fees serve as the backbone of the market’s budget. And yet, many vendors have been unable to attend due to farmers’ health concerns, age, and labor shortages on their farms. At the same time, the market anticipates spending over $80,000 to maintain health and safety measures, including extra staff and equipment to maintain social distancing.
The Heart of the City market is far from alone. In a recent, as-yet unpublished Farmers Market Coalition member survey, 74 percent of the organizations that responded reported decreased income, while 93 percent report added costs, including the purchase of PPE for market staff, rental of more handwashing stations, new software or services, and additional staff to rearrange market layouts and monitor customer traffic. In a similar survey by the California Alliance of Farmers Markets (also unpublished), nearly 20 percent of farmers’ market operators reported concern that they may not survive the economic impacts of COVID-19.
The impact of losing farmers’ markets would be massive. They facilitate an estimated $2.4 billion dollars in sales for small and mid-scale farms in the U.S. each year.
“Without direct assistance for our state’s farmers’ markets, many of which already operate on a shoestring budget and an all-volunteer staff, we risk losing this vital outlet, drastically affecting the livelihoods of farmers,” says Robbi Mixon, director of the Alaska Farmers Market Association. “Small to medium scale farms are the cornerstone of local food systems. If farmers’ markets disappear, these farmers lose market access and economic stability.”
The cruel irony is that interest in local food and demand for emergency food needs have skyrocketed during the pandemic, making the work of farmers’ market operators more important than ever. And yet, they have largely been left out of relief efforts, both public and private.
And the fact that farmers’ markets are some of the safest places to shop at this moment hasn’t happened by accident. It’s thanks to the committed efforts of people who work hard for their communities. These are very lean organizations and many are close to a breaking point, especially since they have been left out of grants and recovery funds that have been made available to other sectors of the economy. For example, many farmers’ market operators were not eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program because of their nonprofit incorporation type. Only 501(c)(3) nonprofits are eligible for these funds and most farmers’ markets are not.
The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare many of the structural problems of our food system, not the least of which is the vital and underappreciated work that farmers’ market operators engage in to keep farmers in business and keep people fed.
The federal government needs to make the Paycheck Protection Program available to farmers’ market operators and provide grants to ensure that they are able to keep markets open and safe. If this work is to continue, farmers’ market operators will need the support of public and private entities as they develop and implement recovery plans.
Meanwhile, we hope the private individuals and foundations who can will step up and donate to support the operation of their local farmers markets. These community institutions have a pivotal role to play—now and in the future—and they’re much too important to lose.