Farmers markets provide healthy food and support local economies. Keep them open during Covid-19 lockdowns.

April 18, 2020
Source: STAT+
Author: Leslie Mikkelsen

The Farmers Market in Berkeley, California, where I’ve shopped for the last 20 years, recently turned the tables — literally — on its customers.

In response to Covide-19, produce is now behind the farm stand staff and handed to customers, instead of letting us rummage through the bins of beets, kale, and other produce that is now available. Markings on the sidewalk clearly indicated where shoppers should stand (more than 10 feet away) for each farm stand, and the staff calls customers up one at a time. Additional markings on the sidewalk help everyone waiting in line maintain safe distances from each other.

I was so happy to see that the market was able to stay open during the local shelter-in-place order. I could reap the immune-boosting benefits of leafy greens and other fresh vegetables and fruits while practicing safe physical distancing.

Other communities aren’t so fortunate. While some governors have listed farmers markets, along with grocery stores and food pantries, as essential services in their statewide stay-at-home orders, some municipalities are shuttering farmers markets. Around the country, localities and states are making different decisions about whether farmers markets are, or are not, deemed essential.

Farmers markets offer many benefits. They provide people with locally grown foods rich in vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants. They are accessible for low-income households and help them stretch their food budgets by using food benefits to shop directly from farmers. And they generate environmental and economic benefits by supporting family farmers who prioritize conservation of food-growing land and plant diversified and more sustainable crops.

Given these benefits, it’s worth taking the measures necessary to make farmers markets Covid-19-safe instead of shutting them down. Farmers markets can adopt the new practices being implemented by grocery stores to keep shoppers and employees safe. They also have the advantage of operating in the open air, which likely lowers the risk of spreading SARS-CoV-2 the virus that caused Covid-19.

Closing farmers markets undercuts local food supply chains and threatens the livelihoods of small family farmers and agricultural workers who are already reeling from the loss of restaurant contracts. Small farms play an irreplaceable role in U.S. food systems now and in our quest to develop a more sustainable food system in the future. We need to help family farms stay afloat during this crisis for the sake of local economic well-being and long-term visions of a more just and sustainable food system.

Closing farmers markets disproportionately hurts low-income families that receive Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits (formerly known as food stamps). For more than a decade, farmers markets and anti-hunger advocates have been building programs like Double Up Food Bucks that double the value of federal nutrition benefits spent at participating farmers markets. Programs like this are in place in 30 states across the country and can provide much needed assistance to people who have recently become unemployed because of the Covid-19 crisis and who will soon be struggling to put food on the table.

As a public health professional based in California, I appreciate how quickly state and local leaders took the brave stance of calling for people to shelter in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and have been inspired by how community members and local businesses have cooperated to slow the spread of this deadly disease.

As a nutritionist and advocate for sustainable local food systems, I believe that we need to do everything we can to ensure that all members of our communities can access fresh and healthy food, support their local food economies, and keep the vision of a sustainable food system alive in spite of Covid-19.

I’m confident that farmers markets can make the changes necessary to follow physical distancing guidelines and continue to innovate as we all learn to live with the threat of Covid-19. Together, we can safely manage the risks — as communities across the country are doing for grocery stores — and ensure that everyone who wants to can reap the benefits of their local farmers market.

Leslie Mikkelsen is a nutritionist at the Prevention Institute, a national public health nonprofit.

First published in STAT+ April 18, 2020.