Kathy Newsom is exhausted.
For the last few months, she’s been working nonstop to help the dozens of vendors at the Corner Farmers Market in Greensboro make sense of new restrictions put in place by the Guilford County Health Department.
First contact with the department at the end of August took Newsom — the market’s manager — by surprise. She said that an employee with the health department emailed her out of the blue and said that they had been made aware that she was operating a farmers market, and that all of the vendors would have to provide various kinds of paperwork to be up to code.
“I was just like, ‘Really? Because we were set up in a parking lot in a kind of popular corner for quite some time, and we’ve never had issues at all with the health department,’” Newsome said.
Originally the market was started in 2013 by three farmers in the parking lot of Sticks and Stones in the Lindley Park neighborhood. In 2021, after eight years at that location, the Corner Market moved to the parking lot of St. Andrews Episcopal Church off of Market Street just a few minutes away. And since its inception, they’ve never had any problems, Newsom said.
“No customer has ever said anything,” she said. “Nobody has ever asked me about health codes. Nobody is doing anything that’s not safe.”
Now, as the market approaches its 10-year anniversary, the health department is asking to inspect all of the more than 40 vendors for things like ServSafe certifications, liability insurance and kitchen safety.
The part revolving around where people are physically making their food is the most problematic, according to Newsom, because most vendors make their food out of their homes, and some of them have pets. But that violates county health code.
Finding another place to cook, like a community kitchen, is expensive.
“Most folks have gone to Short Street in Kernersville and Out of the Garden’s commercial kitchen, and neither one is cheap,” Newsom said. “Nothing is as cheap as staying at home; it’s inconvenient, it’s expensive. It adds to every piece of merchandise that you bring to market.”
According to one vendor, there is a $100 deposit to use Out of the Garden’s kitchen and use of the kitchen costs $15 per hour. Fridge space costs $10 per shelf while dry storage costs $5 per shelf.
So far, at least one vendor has had to stop selling goods at the market altogether because of the sudden changes. Newsom said that on average, the market has about 40 vendors every week. And it’s affecting each vendor differently, she said.
“With every vendor, it’s different,” she said. “If they’re cooking they have to have a certified kitchen at home or wherever they go. Beyond that, there’s inspections by several different levels of agencies. I’ve never had to walk anybody through it. It’s not a simple thing you can Google.”
And despite Newsom’s best efforts, the process is really between each individual vendor and the county health department and not with the market as a whole. So some vendors are better off than others.
“Some of them need a lot of reassurance,” Newsom said. “Others have handed me a stack of paperwork no problem.”
But for many at the market, English isn’t their first language and they’re nervous, Newsom said.
Of the 45 vendors they have, about half are women-led, a dozen are Black- or Brown-owned and seven are operated by first-generation immigrants. Sixteen are farms for which the market is their main source of income. Five out of the eight vendors who have had to make major changes are Black or Brown vendors, Newsom said. A few vendors have stopped selling temporarily.
“For many, if not most, our market is their primary sales outlet,” Newsom said. “The vending that they do at the market may be the sole source of income for their family. Not to imply that anyone shouldn’t have to ‘play by the rules,’ but just to give you an idea of who is in our vendor family, and why I don’t want to lose anyone as a result of this process. This market is important to them and they are important to us, and to their customers.”
‘It’s not about safety’
Taylor Dankovich and Kyle Grimsley of Claude’s Vegan Market were having fun selling their plant-based products to people at the market until September. That’s when they had to reevaluate their business and really decide the amount of time, effort and money they were going to put into their hobby.
“If this had never happened, we would just have been coasting along,” Grimsley said. “This is forcing us to get into doing things and thinking about what our next step is.”
But Grimsley and Dankovich are lucky, they said. They both have full-time jobs so the money made from the market isn’t something that they need to get by; they understand that many of the other vendors aren’t as privileged.
“Our situation with this is a lot different from others at the market who are feeding their families with this money,” Dankovich said.
Even so, the process has been daunting, the two said. They had to pay about $200 to get ServSafe certified and they had to start looking for somewhere else to make their food because they live with a cat. Then they had to get liability insurance, which adds to the cost, too. And it’s going to result in them having to raise their prices, which is something they don’t want to do.
“Through doing the market we’ve been able to build our customer base and that’s why it’s going to be hard to tell them that we’re going to have to raise our prices, but they’ve all been really supportive,” Dankovich said.
Starting this week, the two will be renting space at Out of the Garden’s community kitchen, which allows users to rent on an hourly basis compared to other shared kitchens that charge a flat rate.
They decided on renting space outside of their home because getting a home kitchen certified is out of the question if you have pets, plus it’s time consuming and expensive. According to the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, there are a number of steps business owners have to take to get their kitchen certified including having the correct number of sinks, creating comprehensive food-product labels, testing products for pH levels, filing for a tax number and registering a business name. And that’s in addition to having someone come out and inspect the kitchen, which currently takes at least four to six weeks after submitting an application. Grimsley said that some vendors have had to wait two or three months.
“The market was a community thing but now it’s like there’s a paywall to join the market if you want to be a food vendor,” Dankovich said. “You have to get ServSafe, you have to do whatever. So if you don’t have the money to do it, you can’t do it.”
Both Dankovich and Newsom believe that the regulations aren’t really about keeping people safe.
“Honestly, a lot of this doesn’t feel like it’s about safety,” Newsom said. “The vendors that we have are so serious about what they do and about serving their community. Safety is so important to them, we’ve never had a single problem.”
Instead, Dankovich said it feels like bureaucratic money-grabbing.
“Somebody wants their dime,” she said. “Maybe I’m just being dramatic, but it’s not about safety. Somebody sees a group of people who are thriving and they’re like, I need to get my cut of that. It’s like nobody can thrive without someone at a desk not doing anything profiting off of it.”
Triad City Beat reached out of the Guilford County Health Department but did not hear back in time for publication.
‘We’re going to have to change the laws’
Recently, the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship announced that they got a $20,000 grant to create a commercial kitchen at the center. The hope is that it will allow area food entrepreneurs to access a space to create. However, the timeline for construction, as well as cost for vendors is still unclear, according to Lisa Hazlett, the president of NCE.
The real thing that Newsom is hoping for is a change to the state laws.
“I think we’re going to have to change the laws to operate in the way we want to operate,” she said. “If our cottage food laws were more like they were in Virginia, we could do so much more. Other states are so farmer friendly.”
Currently there is no such thing as a cottage food law in North Carolina.
Cottage food laws in other states allow small-scale producers to bake, cook, can or pickle low-risk food items out of their home kitchens. In states like Maryland and Florida, vendors can make things like bread, pastries, candy, honey, jams and jellies, coffee and pies without much regulation. Foods that require refrigeration are typically not allowed.
In North Carolina, some of the same foods like shelf-stable baked goods and sauces can be sold, but the red tape like what the Corner Market vendors are now facing make it difficult to do so. In fact, the Institute for Justice, which rates states based on their cottage food rules, has rated North Carolina’s homemade food laws a “C+” overall. However, in the regulatory burdens category, the state received a “D+.” A “C-” was given for food varieties and the state got an “A” for its sales and venue restrictions.
Ideally, a law like the one passed in June 2019 in West Virginia could be crafted to help vendors in NC, too.
“West Virginia has not seen any widespread foodborne outbreaks or negative effects from loosening regulations on cottage foods,” said Kent Leonhardt, West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture at the time of the law’s passing. “To the contrary, we as a department continue to push for common sense regulations that move the government out of the way of producers. This is part of our effort to foster economic development through agribusinesses and local food.”
The state got an overall grade of “B” for their laws. The main difference between the states exists in the regulations.
Unfortunately, NC has not changed its rules despite the fact that since 2015, 34 states and Washington, DC have created new programs or expanded their existing laws, according to the Institute for Justice.
And that’s problematic because during the pandemic, more and more people turned to making food and selling out of their homes to supplement their income streams. Other states have recognized that and changed their laws accordingly.
In the last two years, South Dakota scrapped its ban on selling homemade food and Utah expanded their laws to allow for homemade meals with meat to be sold as long as sellers have a permit.
According to Newsom, reaching out to the state’s Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler and local state representatives like Rep. Pricey Harrison, who pushed for legislation during the pandemic to keep farmers markets open, will be key to enacting change.
“I do feel like we have some friends in high places to talk to,” Newsom said. “We’ve just never had to go this route before.”
But it makes sense, because according to the data, the cottage food industry is only growing.
In 2008, cottage food sales totaled about $5 billion. In 2019, before the pandemic, the total was projected to be $20 billion, according to former US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Like the makeup of the Corner Market, women make up a large portion of the cottage food industry, according to survey data collected by the Institute for Justice. Based on their data, 83 percent of cottage food producers were female with many of them living in rural areas with below-average income levels. The survey results also showed that the biggest benefits of running a cottage food business was the fact that workers could be their own boss, have flexibility in their schedule and have financial independence. And that’s what’s being taken away from some of the vendors at the Corner Market now.
“It’s so different to have folks set up at our farmers markets where they have a lot of pride, they have a clientele,” Newsom said. “Many of them are very satisfied with what they’re doing…. I feel like we provide something really valuable to lots of different people in different ways. I really just desperately want to figure out how to not get shut down.”
To learn more about how you can help support the Corner Farmers Market, visit the market on Saturdays between 8 a.m.-12 p.m. The market will be open the next two Saturdays on Dec. 10 and 17. It will also be open on Wednesday, Dec. 21 before Christmas. It will be closed the rest of the year after that and will reopen in January. Reach out to Kathy Newsom at [email protected] for more information.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misnamed Lisa Hazlett, director of the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurshiup (where we keep our offices). A correction has been made. TCB regrets the error.
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