Major grocery chains are seeing sharp increases in sales this week as households stock up and prepare to stay home to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Photos of empty shelves in stores across the country have even prompted warnings against hoarding and reminders to shop responsibly.
But beyond the walls of the nation’s big box stores, other vital facets of the food system are faring far worse. Among them are the local and regional markets that allow farmers to sell directly to consumers or to restaurants, schools, and other institutions. Tens of thousands of farmers and food producers rely on these markets to make a living, but as US confirmed cases of COVID-19 surpass 10,000 and states move forward with necessary public health protections such as school closures and “shelter in place” policies, these markets are taking an enormous hit.
While the Trump administration prioritizes bailouts for airlines and other big businesses, it’s an imperative to support the family farms that put food on our plates. That’s why groups representing farmers and farmers markets nationwide are telling Congress they need to be included in the next federal aid package—and they’ve got the numbers to prove it.
In the meantime, state and local governments also need to recognize that farmers markets provide essential public services, or they’ll risk breaking the backbone of their local food economies by the time this crisis is over.
As markets shrink, how much do farmers and ranchers stand to lose?
According to a recent economic impact assessment, farmers and ranchers could lose as much as $690 million in sales in key local and regional markets, including farmers markets, restaurants, schools and universities, during the next three months. This would lead to an estimated $100 million less paid out on employee payrolls and a total loss of $1.32 billion to the economy.
And that’s only for the next three months. If the economic effects of the coronavirus extend into the summer months, the peak season for many farmers markets, estimated losses could increase considerably.
Putting farmers and food producers first in the next federal aid package
This week, President Trump signed legislation for a federal aid package that includes additional funding for nutrition programs serving low-income children, families, and seniors, expands paid family and sick leave for workers at certain companies, and improves accessibility of coronavirus testing.
Now, Congress is turning its attention to a stimulus package that might provide more direct financial support to families and small businesses—and it’s critical for the future of our food system that they get it right. Specifically, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition—a national alliance representing more than 100 grassroots food and farm organizations and allies—is calling on Congress to help sustain demand for farm products in markets that have been disrupted, such as sales to schools and universities; provide direct financial assistance to affected producers, supply chain businesses, food system workers, and food establishments; and offer more administrative flexibility for existing farm and food system programs. These supports will be particularly important for beginning farmers and farmers of color.
Organizations like the Food Chain Workers Alliance and Restaurant Opportunities Center United have also underscored the need for health and safety protections, including paid sick leave and healthcare coverage, for workers throughout food production, distribution, and retail—without whom the food system ceases to function.
Meanwhile, more states say farmers markets are essential services for eaters
In the absence of a comprehensive coronavirus response from the federal government, state and local governments have begun to take matters into their own hands to protect public health. This has included school closures and “shelter in place” orders, which require residents to stay at home except for essential activities such as visits to the doctor and trips to the grocery store. But while experts agree such actions are needed to prevent the spread of the virus, state and local policies are inconsistent on what activities are considered essential—and farmer’s markets have been caught in the crosshairs.
For example, in Seattle, which suspended all large gatherings to control the regional outbreak, farmers markets were treated similarly to parades and public gatherings and were closed down.
But many argue that farmers markets can serve as critical food access points during emergencies, and should be recognized by state and federal governments as essential public infrastructure, much like other services that meet public needs for food, water, waste, and transportation. In recent days, states such as Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin have all issued statements characterizing farmers markets as essential services.
“There isn’t evidence that COVID-19 transmission risk would differ at a grocery store versus a farmers market,” per Roland McReynolds, Executive Director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. “Shutting down farmers markets, unless the jurisdiction is also shutting down Walmart, isn’t justified.”
If you can, there are more ways to support local farmers this weekend
The National Farmers Market Coalition has mobilized to help consumers learn where markets have been declared essential services, and to provide market operators with best practices, tips, and resources for weathering this emergency.
In jurisdictions that haven’t shut down farmers markets, you can help keep local farmers and food producers afloat during this difficult time by shopping there. Here in the Washington, DC region, for example, FRESHFARM—a nonprofit that operates 15 producer-only markets—has taken steps to keep markets open safely and to help their producers set up alternatives for food pickup and delivery.
Of course, protecting yourself from the virus is a priority, so if you do visit a farmers market this weekend, it may be best to go early, refrain from socializing and maintain social distance, and only handle produce you intend to buy. For options with even less social contact, there are still many local farms offering Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares, such as DC’s Three Part Harmony or Little Wild Things Farm, that provide fresh, local produce for pickup or delivery each week.