fresh produce at farmers market stand in city

Local officials and market managers are navigating a thicket of public health challenges as they ready for the season.

Typically, this is the time of year when Massachusetts consumers get an infusion of local alternatives to supermarket fare, as seasonal farmers markets open. But, while Gov. Charlie Baker included farmers markets among “essential services” during the COVID-19 pandemic, this spring is anything but typical for the state’s 221 markets.

Market managers and the local officials they work with have been navigating a thicket of public health challenges, both as they prepare to launch their outdoor “summer” markets and as some scrambled to replace in-person “winter markets” in March and April with pickup or delivery services (“mobile markets”) to provide local residents with access to fresh produce, meat, eggs and fish.

“For nearly 50 years, the opening of the Amherst Farmers Market has been a true harbinger of spring,” said Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman. “Farmers and vendors bring their goods, people emerge from their homes, music is in the air – a true embrace of the new season.

“This year will be different, but we look forward to opening the market, even if under different circumstances.”

Like a number of others in Massachusetts, the Amherst Farmers Market is still working out details of how and when it will be able to open in a way that complies with new guidelines and requirements established by numerous authorities, including municipal public health and licensing officials, the state departments of Agricultural Resources and Public Health, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Some are now poised to open – albeit with an air of austerity.

A different look
Besides providing residents with fresh, healthy food, farmers markets also support farms that contribute to local, regional and state economies and conserve open space. The typically bustling and walkable markets also provide a sense of community, with music, homemade crafts and art in addition to food.

Greenfield’s market draws farmers from all over Franklin County, a region with about 900 farms.

“It would be unthinkable not to have a summer farmers market in 2020,” said Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner, “even during this challenging time.

“We set out to come up with a plan that is as safe as possible, keeping all rules for physical distancing in place, and still allow our citizens who want access to fresh-grown food and dairy and to support our farmers to be able to do that.”

When the Greenfield Farmers Market opened for the season downtown on May 4, offerings were limited to food and plants.

“No crafters, no music,” said Greenfield Farmers’ Market Steering Committee President David Paysnick. “We really don’t want people gathering there. We need to put safety and food access first, and put fun and commerce behind that.”

Paysnick said his organization began discussing logistics with Wedegartner’s office and the Greenfield Board of Health in March, and has been learning from other farmers markets through a listserv operated by the Farmers Markets Coalition – picking up best practices on everything from ordering hand sanitizer to setting up pre-order/drive-through operations and handling pedestrian traffic flow.

The story is the same in other communities preparing to open in-person markets that will look and feel more constrained.

Needham Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick said the Needham Health Division discussed with the Needham Farmers Market the necessary steps to safely hold the market this year.

“The goal is to run a safe market that adheres to the most up-to-date guidance on COVID-19,” she said.

Needham’s market, like many others, will feature spacing of at least 6 feet between vendors; one-way customer flow; face masks for vendors and customers; handwashing stations; a ban on cloth tablecloths, reusable shopping bags and food samples; and a focus on contactless/cash-free forms of payment, with workers sanitizing credit cards and readers between transactions.

It’s not a recipe for a carefree afternoon; it’s a formula designed to connect people with fresh, locally grown food safely and efficiently.

“The market is a community event. … That socializing piece isn’t going to happen,” said Melrose Farmers Market Manager Julie Unger. “It’s going to be different.”

The Melrose market is planning to open in early June in a city park. It will have designated hours for online pre-order pickups and for senior citizens only, said Unger, who has been sharing ideas in weekly Zoom meetings with about 20 other farmers market managers representing many of the state’s regions – a “grassroots” effort that grew out of a Facebook group.

Sharing ideas and helping those in need
Other organizations providing guidance include Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, which has created a Farmers’ Markets Checklist: logistical best practices document, and the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative, which has been facilitating conversations related to the unique food access challenges COVID-19 poses for recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

While mobile markets are a breeze for credit card customers, they are problematic for SNAP recipients whose payments, by law, can’t be online.

“SNAP payment processing is a huge equity issue right now,” said Rebecca Miller, manager of the collaborative’s Healthy Incentives Program campaign. She expressed optimism those rules may be eased, and said farmers markets are finding creative solutions in the meantime.

North Adams, for example, hopes to launch a pre-order/drive-through market for SNAP recipients in mid-May. Both the North Adams and Pittsfield farmers markets offer up to $30 of free food for SNAP recipients, and the Pittsfield market extends that benefit to anyone “facing economic hardship due to the pandemic.” Operated by the nonprofit Roots Rising, Pittsfield held its first “virtual” market on April 4.

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer said the Downtown Farmers Market “has found a way to ensure that our community members have access to fresh fruits and vegetables from local farms” through the creation of a new website and delivery system.

“I am inspired by the continuous demonstration of innovation and ingenuity among Pittsfielders, who are finding bold solutions to meet the needs in our community,” she said.

Several farmers markets have been operating throughout the COVID crisis, offering mobile markets that rely on remote ordering and delivery or pickup. It’s a model North Adams Mayor Thomas Bernard said shows “thoughtfulness and creativity” to bring “the market directly into people’s homes – including mine – at a time when we can’t safely gather in public.”

Lynn’s farmers market is a collaboration between the city and The Food Project. Two markets, serving more than 200 residents each (with 70% using SNAP), took place April 4 and 25, and a “seniors only” market was held at elderly living establishments on April 30.

“COVID-19 has wrought havoc around the world, and Lynn is no different,” said Lynn Food and Fitness Alliance Director Norris Guscott. “But thanks to a partnership between the Lynn Department of Public Health and TFP, the city was able to mount a robust response to safeguard food access for the city’s most vulnerable.”

Written by Lisa Capone