Columnist Claire Morenon: Farmers markets now full of the most exciting crops
Daily Hampshire Gazette, July 28, 2021
Local businesses of all sorts have been through the wringer over the past year and a half — and at CISA, where we work with local farms, food producers, restaurants, and retailers, we’ve seen their immense flexibility and resilience. Local farmers’ markets, which exist as part business, part community space, part event, and always as a labor of love, faced distinct challenges because of COVID-19. Now that we’re back in the height of the growing season, it’s a good moment to consider the factors that make farmers’ markets a unique and vital component of our local food system.
Our region boasts 29 summer farmers’ markets and four winter markets in 26 towns, bringing together farmers, food producers, chefs, artists, and more to feed their communities. Most of these markets are independent— some have nonprofit or city support, but most are run by farmer committees, super part-time market managers, or volunteers. When COVID-19 hit, every business had to scramble to figure out how to adapt: how to keep staff safe, how to keep customers safe, and how to apply changing regulations to their daily operations. For farmers’ markets, the shifting circumstances were especially tough. Farmers’ markets are transient, dependent on their host locations to exist, and the winter farmers’ markets that were operating in schools, senior centers, and other community locations in March 2020 had to shut down abruptly as their sites closed or sharply limited access to the public.
That spring, summer market managers hustled to figure out how their outdoor markets could safely open. Farmers’ markets were declared essential businesses by the governor, but each market had to work closely with their local health department and other town or city officials to establish what safe re-opening would entail. Many markets operate on city property and need permission to open, and health departments in Massachusetts have a lot of autonomy to set the rules for food sales in their own cities. During the early months of COVID-19, guidance for and oversight of farmers’ markets was just one of a million priorities for these officials, so market managers had to advocate hard for their markets. Most summer markets had delayed openings in 2020.
As markets opened, the additional time and money needed to set up signage, keep hand sanitizer stocked, and manage the number and flow of visitors was significant. Market managers, volunteers, and vendors create the market space anew every week, starting with an empty street or parking lot or field, and the demands of the pandemic compounded that labor.
Farmers’ markets are more than a physical location for farmers to sell their wares — they are also community gathering spaces, venues for music and art, and hubs for organizing and advocacy. COVID-19 demanded that markets be stripped down to just their retail function. This shift in the public sphere — away from leisure and connection and towards essential functions only — was one of the quieter sorrows of the pandemic, and it’s been a joy to see music and fun coming back to the markets in 2021.
Markets are crucial access points for HIP (Healthy Incentives Program), a statewide program that offers an instant rebate of up to $80 per month when shoppers use SNAP to buy produce directly from participating local farms. This program means a significant increase in grocery budgets for low-income families across the state, many of whom don’t have the transportation or schedule flexibility to go to participating farms which are largely located outside of city centers. Farmers’ markets (along with urban farms like Gardening The Community in Springfield) bridge that gap.
For the first time in its five years in operation, HIP was fully funded by the state in 2020 and was able to run year-round without any interruption. This was part of the state’s response to rising hunger rates because of the pandemic, but advocates (including CISA) led by the MA Food System Collaborative have been pushing for year-round funding for years — it is crucial to the people who rely on it for food and to farmers who are counting on HIP sales. Stay tuned to mafoodystem.org for opportunities to support this vital program.
It’s July, which means that markets are full of all the most exciting crops: fresh corn, juicy tomatoes, and peaches and berries, and everything else you need for dinner. They have weathered a tough stretch to be there for you every week, and this is a wonderful time of year to visit them. Find a market near you at buylocalfood.org.
Claire Morenon is the Communications Manager at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).