Farmers’ Markets are an Essential Service
By Cheryl Angelina Koehler | Illustrations by Gary Handman
Reel back to Saturday, March 14, 2020. Shoppers are sweeping supermarket shelves of everything from beans to toilet paper as Staci DeShasier, executive director of Contra Costa Farmers’ Markets Inc., braces herself for the hard job of telling her Sunday Walnut Creek Farmers’ Market vendors that she feels no choice but to close the next day’s market. The county had issued an order prohibiting mass gatherings of 100 or more, and since the memo was sent on a Saturday, there was no way to question how it pertained to Certified Farmers’ Markets (CFMs). “There’s confusion,” she expresses dejectedly on the phone that day. “Counties make their own interpretations, and there isn’t always consistency from county to county.”
The next day in Berkeley, Carle Brinkman, food and farming program director for the Ecology Center and chair of the California Alliance of Farmers’ Markets, pens a letter for Alliance members to sign and send to California Department of Food & Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross bidding the Department to take swift action and issue a statement “affirming the essential role certified farmers’ markets play for California’s farmers, economy, and communities across the State, and affirmatively equate Certified Farmers’ Markets with grocery stores and other retail outlets for the purposes of Covid-19.”
The threat of closures was “creating food scarcity where there wasn’t any,” says Andréa Pinal, program manager for the Urban Village Farmers’ Market Association (UVFM). “It’s not just a luxury. You don’t go to the farmers’ market because it’s the elite thing to do.”
Thankfully, the Contra Costa County order was amended days later to include CFMs as an essential service, DeShasier resumed her market the next week, and four months into California’s shelter-in-place order, most farmers’ markets in the East Bay are in full swing, albeit with a host of safety directives that managers and vendors must follow. Rules (or strong suggestions) for customers are now posted on websites, social media, and at market entry points regarding masks, social distancing, hand washing, sending only one household member to shop, not eating prepared food on site, and more.
As Chris Hall, “El Jefe” of the Kensington Farmers’ Market, said in an interview with Berkeley filmmaker Mark Altenberg, they simply had to let go of regarding their market as a social event. “We had to morph into being an essential event and a way to keep supporting the farmers and vendors.” Click here to watch Altenberg’s video.
Ben Palazzolo, director of operations at the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association, also expresses concern for the farmers. “Most are small businesses that can’t just shut down for a couple of months. The fruits and vegetables are coming off the trees, out of the ground, and if those don’t get picked and sold, all the money the farmer put into that is lost.”
Palazzolo has observed that market customers are buying in greater quantities, which has been good for the farmers, but there’s also more work at the booths, since customers can no longer touch and choose their own produce.
“Farmers markets have shown their resilience,” Palazzolo says. “When things went off the rails in March, when supermarkets had a run on eggs … people could still get their eggs at our markets. Farmers’ markets are structures for direct sales that could adapt quickly.”
Brinkman concurs. The current crisis has crystalized the ways that local food systems—which farmers’ markets are at the heart of—can be “more nimble, resilient, and able to respond in an emergency like the one we face.” But she adds that creating a safe place for everyone to shop has added tremendous costs with little support from the state or federal governments. Both she and the Ecology Center’s Farmers’ Market Manager Nina Scoville express gratitude that the City of Berkeley, in conjunction with local businesses and neighbors near the market sites, helped facilitate footprint expansion at all three markets—North, South, and Downtown Berkeley—to not only allow more space for social distancing, but also to accommodate a growth in new customers. Brinkman notes a similar and well-documented uptick in use of CalFresh (food stamps) at farmers’ markets all over the state. Clearly, farmers’ markets are an essential business.
While UVFM’s Pinal acknowledges the uphill battle to keep the markets functioning through the first few months of the pandemic, she also finds deep satisfaction. “Vendors were quick to come up with effective safety solutions, and grateful to keep working, and grateful for the impact they were making. A lot of the sellers were really touched by the opportunity to be, essentially, first responders. ‘Yeah, we’re out here risking our health to do this, but it’s important.’ We’ve had customers who were immunocompromised, who didn’t feel safe, who were grateful to be able to drive up curbside and get groceries loaded into their cars; people who had not left their homes in weeks.”
With a little help from the apps
UVFM and Agricultural Institute of Marin, which runs East Bay markets in Oakland, Hayward, and Newark, were among the first market associations to start pre-packing boxes of market products for curbside pickup. Pinal emphasizes, however, that her association was thinking beyond meeting the current emergency. “We would like to continue offering curbside beyond Covid: for fires, rainy days, and who knows how long Covid is going to last. We thought of it long-term as we merged with the WhatsGood app.”
App technology has been a perfect interface for farmers, says Pinal. “The modern, urban world is reciprocating as the farmers in turn are able to deliver this good old-fashioned, clean, traceable food to urban and suburban communities. While many of our farmer and small-business food purveyors are young and already very tech savvy and on the pulse of these online systems—even juggling multiple platforms at a time—there’s just a handful of older, more traditional farmers who had to really push themselves to learn it.” To counter that resistance, Pinal and her team assumed the key would be explaining how tech could increase sales, but they finally made headway by explaining how it would allow the farmers to help customers who are sick or immunocompromised. The surprise was hearing many of them say, “Oh yeah, I guess these people can’t come to the market. I’ll do it for them!”
Pinal turns to the consumer view of shopping apps and what they actually facilitate. “With shopping online becoming increasingly popular, I think it’s important that consumers really ask themselves what their goal is. If convenience is the goal without concern about sourcing, then there are tons of options. But if the goal is avoiding contamination, outbreaks, and disease spread, and short and clear traceability—knowing your food has traveled a very short and direct path from a small, non-industrialized farm straight to your kitchen and not passed through dozens of distribution touch points—then your options are much fewer than you think.”
Pinal feels consumers might do well to better understand what it means to be a “certified” farmers’ market or CSA. “The terms literally mean that a consumer is buying directly from a farmer. By virtue, this also means that, compared to food from big ag, it’s small-batch, local, and freshly harvested, because when you are buying direct, the product is not leaving the hands of the farmer to travel far. This is a very important structural distinction. Yet you see the terms being falsely used as marketing tools by wholesale buyers and distributors [grocery stores and delivery services] every day because they very well know it carries reputable weight as the gold standard of local, traceable, sustainable small-scale sourcing.”
‘More of a gift now than a given’
Turning back to Chris Hall in Kensington, we’re reminded of the pure social value in keeping the markets going. “I think people are very appreciative of seeing other people. They are able to interact with the vendors and see a familiar face, even though it’s behind a mask. And of course, there are little things, like just getting out of the house. There’s a new level of appreciation for that. It’s a little more of a gift now than a given.” ♦
During the Covid-19 outbreak, Edible East Bay is working hard to keep our East Bay Farmers' Market list updated with the latest information on which markets are open and how they are adapting.