They’re open for business, one way or another

Grocery shopping used to be therapeutic. Remember meandering up and down each aisle, casually picking up boxes, caressing ergonomic jars and actively crinkling cellophane packages? Grocery shopping was once a stress-reliever. But now, instead of sampling cubes of cheese and bread slices dipped in oil along with sips of wine from paper cups and grabbing slices of fruit stabbed with toothpicks, we’re marveling at the empty shelves and trying not to touch anything.

My, how times have changed.

To tamp down on the community spread of COVID-19, local governments have issued ordinances and suggestions to limit gatherings of people in indoor and outdoor spaces to no more than 10 people. While restaurants are limited to take-out, carryout and delivery options, farmers markets are seeing a boost. An ordinance issued by NC Gov. Roy Cooper on March 20 states that farmers markets are in the same classification as grocery stores and can remain open, according to guidance issued by the state Department of Health and Human Services.

“A big part of my week last week was working with Pricey Harrison, our state rep, about keeping our market open,” says Kathy Newsom, the manager of the Corner Farmers Market in Greensboro.

The market opened Saturday morning, just like always.

“We didn’t know what to be prepared for, but about 150 people came through the pre-order pick up line,” she said. “And while at no time were we crowded, a good clip of people came through to shop the market.”

Normally, more than 40 vendors set up at the market; last week that number was reduced to 16. Market communications via email and social media encourage people to pre-order and utilize the drive-up pick-up option.

“We wanted assured items that may not be available at grocery stores,” said Newsom. “We asked certain vendors to sit this one out and focused on sellers of food, plants, soap and cleaners.”

Farmers Markets that choose to operate during the COVID-19 outbreak are required to follow the same federal or state- mandated directives as grocery stores on issues such as social distancing and crowd size. According to the CDC, the virus is most likely to cause illness through respiratory transmission, not eating. The highest concerns include being in very close proximity to people or coming in contact with highly touched surfaces.

The Robert G. Shaw Piedmont Farmers Market in Colfax, run by the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, is still open daily from 7 a.m.-6 p.m. As of March 17, operations at the Greensboro Curb Farmers Market, which is run by the City of Greensboro are suspended. Market organizers have compiled a resource directory to connect customers directly with vendors while in lieu of a Saturday market.

“We will be announcing new portals and models as the days go by,” said Executive Director Lee Mortensen. “We are moving from a traditional public market to a virtual marketplace. The market will be here for everyone to continue connecting farmer foods and friends when we can open our doors again,” Mortensen adds.

The Cobblestone Farmers Market in Winston-Salem usually operates in Old Salem. Since the living museum is closed to the public, Cobblestone staff have decided to set-up outside in the parking lot at 1001 S. Marshall St. on Saturdays with extended hours of 8:30 a.m.-noon until further notice.

All operational farmers markets are taking several new precautions:

  • Providing high-risk and senior customers aged 65 and over an exclusive shopping time from 8:30-9 a.m.
  • Creating a 20-foot distance between booths, reducing crowd volume by extending market hours and promoting pre-ordering, drive-up, pick-up and home delivery.
  • Increasing awareness and opportunity for social distancing between customers in lines, and discouraging prolonged conversations/interactions at a distance
  • Vendors will use gloves when handling money and, packaged items; two people will manage each booth — one money handler and one product handler. 
  • Regularly sanitizing high- touch areas within the market area and using non-porous tablecloths

“We are going above and beyond grocery stores,” says Salem Neff, Cobblestone Farmers Market co-founder.

Farmers markets are an important link in the local food chain. Food access for vulnerable populations may be a problem, but both farmers markets have a solution.

“We are actively trying to increase economic growth through agriculture. It’s on our website. It’s in our mission statement,” says Margaret Norfleet-Neff, Cobblestone Farmers Market Co-Founder and CEO.

The Cobblestone Food Access Program and the Greens For Greens program at the Corner Farmers Market make SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) dollars go farther by matching every $10 spent at the market with an additional $10 in market tokens to spend at the market. For example, if a SNAP customer chooses to spend $50 using their EBT (electronic benefits transfer) card, the market matches that amount and provides an additional $50. Both markets use a token system for SNAP customers. Tokens are exchanged in lieu of cash to spend at each vendor. The programs are funded through private donations, grants and sales of market merchandise such as tote bags, travel mugs and T-shirts.

“The word isn’t out there about these programs at farmers markets,” says Lauren Shemelya, a SNAP recipient. She and three of her children qualify for $186 a month in benefits. “People are lazy and don’t want to cook. Good, fresh fruit and vegetables are out there. I didn’t even know about the matching program.”

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