How Minnesota’s Food Co-Ops and Farmers Markets Are Rising to the Occasion During the COVID-19 Crisis

fresh vegetables and produce being sold at a farmers market stall

Farmers markets in the Twin Cities and across the upper Midwest will open soon, but as the Minnpost reports, they are definitely going to look different this year.

Nearly 30 farmers markets and mini-markets operate in the Twin Cities, featuring foods that traveled an average distance of only 39 miles from farm-to-market, according to a city of Minneapolis study. Overall, roughly 650 Minneapolis farmers market vendors grossed more than $13 million in sales in 2018.

For many local and regional producers, the COVID-19 crisis has posed huge challenges. But the pandemic has also triggered unprecedented consumer demand for local and regional foods.

In general, food production in the U.S. is tailored to big purchasers, such as restaurants and wholesale distributors. The collapse of the restaurant industry in recent weeks has left farmers who sell to restaurants—particularly small producers with low profit margins—at risk. According to a report by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, local and regional farms could see a decline in sales from March to May 2020 of nearly $689 million.

Minnesota farmers selling primarily or exclusively to schools and other institutional buyers are frantically trying to find new markets during COVID-19, as Minnesota Public Radio’s Dan Gunderson recently reported.

“When schools closed, it was a lump in our throat for sure,” said Ben Doherty, who runs Open Hands Farm with his wife, Erin Johnson, in southern Minnesota near Northfield. Minneapolis Public Schools is one of the Doherty’s biggest customers. When the schools closed and moved to distance learning last month, Open Hands was left with more than 9,000 pounds of carrots. So they offered 25-pound bags for sale on Facebook—and sold them all.

Fortunately, resources do exist for farm-to-school producers, whereas some producers who supply primarily to restaurants are acing bankruptcy.

On the positive side, consumer demand has increased.  “It’s been pretty crazy-busy here,” said Aaron Purvis, who works with Natural Way Mills, an organic milling operation near Middle River in northwest Minnesota. “We’ve had to stop orders on our website so we can keep up with our other distributors, bakeries and producers that have doubled their orders, as well.”

But while demand for local food has never been higher, COVID-19 restrictions are posing major logistical challenges for farmers and ranchers not accustomed to selling direct to consumers, but who are now having to redirect.

Across the country, state and local policy governing farmers markets is a jumbled patchwork. A dozen states have classified farmers markets as “essential businesses.” But a majority of states haven’t issued concrete guidance on the matter, instead leaving the fate of farmers markets to city and local leaders who are struggling to deal with the issue.

Ambiguity about farmers market policy puts food-insecure consumers and local farmers in a precarious position, at a time when access to healthy, affordable food is needed more than ever.

But there are bright spots, too. For example, New York City Green Market Farmers Markets is a national inspiration in implementing creative policies and procedures to continue serving New Yorkers. Some vendors are even offering home delivery during the crisis.

In Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz’s “Stay-at Home” Executive Order went into effect on March 27th, shuttering most of the state’s businesses. However, retail food stores were allowed to remain open as “essential businesses,” as were farmers markets under guidance provided by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

Farmers’ Markets and Vendors Guidance include requiring farmers market customers to use public handwashing stations at market entrances upon entering, and maintain six-foot separation distances. Having a table in front of each booth for exchanging products and payments, limiting market entrances and widening aisles between stall rows are part of the requirements.

The historic St. Paul Farmers Market was set to open 25 to 30 vendors on April 25th, but the date was backed up oto May 2nd. The market is instituting one-way traffic, a reduced number of vendor stalls, restricted entrance and exit points and barriers separating vendors from customers.

Minneapolis’ largest farmers market on the west side of downtown, which runs daily through October with more than 100 vendors opened, on April 25th with restrictions. The very popular 50-plus vendor Thursday farmers market, which runs several blocks down Nicollet Avenue in the heart of downtown, was scheduled to open on May 7th, but will not open until Governor Walz’ shelter-in-place order is lifted and office workers return to their jobs.

The Mill City Farmers Market is located in the historic birthplace of Minneapolis. Facing cancellation of it’s very popular indoor market that was scheduled to open March 21, creative staff set up an online order system and moved the market outside. Each customer was given a 30-minute window for picking up their goods. Market staff developed a COVID-19 policy, and is open only for pre-order and pick-up. Many vendors are offering home delivery.

Meanwhile, Twin Cities food co-ops and natural food stores continue to face physical distancing challenges. Plexiglass cashier shields, physical distancing markers on floors, restrictions on the number of customers allowed in the store at one time, reduced store staffing and reduced hours to allow for cleaning and re-stocking shelves are all part of doing business during the pandemic. (The two Seward Co-Op stores allow only 50 customers in the store at once, and have removed products from their floors).

Seward Co-Op is providing curbside pick-up for seniors and other high-risk customers, while Lakewinds, The Wedge and Linden Hills Co-ops are offering curbside pick-up  through Instacart online ordering.

Twin Cities farmers markets and their staff are fortunate in this challenging time to be able to draw upon resources developed by the MN Farmers Market Association. MFMA policy states: “While farmers’ markets are encouraged to stay open, alternate delivery modes, such as drive-through markets, are encouraged. All possible protections should be taken. Food sampling is banned and should be immediately suspended. Plans to follow social distancing of 6 feet need to be in place. Hand-washing stations need to be available and utilized abundantly.”

MFMA hosts a Zoom open forum call every Thursday at 1 p.m. to discuss COVID-19-related issues.

Patrick Kerrigan is retail and organic standards coordinator for the Organic Consumers Association (OCA)

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