How Have Local Farmers Markets Adapted to COVID-19?

By Rosunnara RothLast Updated Nov 13, 2020 11:46:10 AM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle/Getty Images

It's been a difficult year for many people since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S., including local food growers. The crisis has affected how farmers markets run and the way people shop at them, leaving many wondering what farmers markets are doing to keep everyone safe and healthy. Before visiting your local farmers market, learn what major changes merchants have made based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), along with the outbreak’s impact on business.

The Farmers Market Experience Is Drastically Different Due to COVID-19

Many farmers markets are working to keep shoppers and staff safe by following CDC guidelines to minimize contact and practice proper hygiene. For this reason, handwashing booths, face masks, social distancing requirements and limits on the number of shoppers are the new normal.

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Photo Courtesy: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Farmers markets have also made new policies to prevent cross-contamination risks. Sampling food and self-picking produce are off-limits to customers; it makes people feel safer knowing that farmers are the only ones touching the produce. Some vendors have hired more staff to provide extra support and services, which include enforcing social distancing, helping shoppers find items and reducing lines’ wait times.

Prepared food sales are also no longer allowed at many farmers markets. As a result, some vendors have agreed to sell prepackaged food as a safety precaution, but others still want to cook food on-site to increase sales. Los Angeles Public Health officials explained the issue with serving food in this manner, noting, "Prepared food sales are not [allowed] because individuals tend to buy their food and then eat it while walking around the farmers market — doing so without a face covering."

Before these changes, the CDC had stated, "Outdoor farmers markets provide a lower risk shopping option with immediate and lasting benefits for shoppers and the community at-large." The risk of COVID-19 spreading via the food and its packaging is very low. However, it’s important that farmers markets require people to wear masks and stay at least 6 feet apart to prevent the spread of the virus. The new public health policies farmers markets have adopted are aimed at doing more to help lower the risk of transmission.

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How Colder Weather and COVID-19 Are Changing Farmers Markets

As temperatures drop in fall and winter, some vendors have started moving to spacious indoor sites or resuming business outside. For instance, Iowa City is extending its farmers market season through December to keep serving and protecting shoppers outdoors. Meanwhile, the Glens Falls Farmers Market is heading indoors. About this change, a farmers market staff news release said, "In the interest of keeping our customers safe, we sought out a large venue for social distancing purposes." Based on CDC guidelines, social distancing and wearing face masks are essential in lowering transmission risks, and it’s important that farmers markets in all facilities continue to enforce these precautions.

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Photo Courtesy: Xinhua/Wang Ping/Getty Images

Popular holiday markets are also going to be different this season, with some fairs adapting to public health orders. In Minnesota, Excelsior's holiday fair Christkindlsmarkt is requiring reservations, face coverings and social distancing — practices that help reduce viral spread. In Chicago, Christkindlmarket has turned into a virtual affair, allowing shoppers to buy seasonal candles, keepsake mugs and other holiday favorites online in the safety of their own homes.

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Has the Pandemic Caused Farmers Markets to Struggle?

The COVID-19 outbreak has negatively impacted many farmers. Due to their fear of contracting the virus, some vendors have not returned to farmers markets. For instance, the number of vendors at the Santa Monica Farmers Market has dropped from around 80 to fewer than 60. Those that remain open have experienced fewer sales. Rose Rennie, the owner of Energy Bee Farm, "estimates that her business dropped 30% over the summer."

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Photo Courtesy: Noam Galai/Getty Images

Many vendors have struggled to reach normal, pre-COVID numbers, but some have made a sufficient number of sales. In Roseville, Erik Powell of Produce Alive saw his sales increase by as much as 40%. Meanwhile, Tom Broz sometimes has a waiting list of customers for his fresh produce at Live Earth Farm. At Shirley's Farmers Market, Rodriguez Farms sold 92 cases of strawberries one morning, while Freshway Fish sold 30 pounds of smoked salmon in less than two hours.

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Farmers markets have adjusted to many changes this year. One of their top priorities has been to protect vendors, staff and visitors, but it’ll be equally important to follow any new guidelines to maintain safety and keep businesses running.

If you plan to visit a farmers market soon, here’s what you can do to minimize your risks:

  • Avoid touching produce and other items. Ask an employee for help.
  • Wash your hands before and after visiting the market.
  • Wear a face covering at all times.
  • Stay at least 6 feet away from others.
  • If you feel sick, stay home and rest.
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