Farmers, farmers markets fill food gaps caused by coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the food system and forced many Ohioans to turn to different sources such as local farmers and farmers markets or the charitable food system.

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The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA), the Ohio Farmers Market Network, the Ohio Food Policy Network and Produce Perks Midwest released a report this week making several policy recommendations for Ohio’s decision-makers on how to build a more secure food system in the state.

“(The coronavirus) paralyzed our country and broke many links in the centralized global food supply chain. Grocery store shelves went bare, animals were euthanize, milk was dumped and families went hungry,” said Amalie Lipstreu, OEFFA policy director.

Those recommendations included establishing an inter-agency food work group to strategize building out farmers markets’ capacities, including creating online stores for farmers markets and local farmers, and how to fund those changes. The four organizations also supported passing the HEROES Act with aid for those selling into local food systems.

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Farmers markets

Farmers markets have had to adapt during the coronavirus crisis.

The Second Street Market in Dayton, for example, reopened after closing because of the coronavirus with changes.

All shopping is now outside. There are restrictions on the number of visitors allowed to shop at any one time and shoppers are required to socially distance and wear face masks.

Lynda Suda, manager of the Second Street Market, said the impetus to reopen the outdoor market was to make sure those who might not have access to fresh produce could have access.

Smaller local and regional farmers and farmers markets provide a local access point for food in many Ohio communities. At all farmers markets in the state, there is at least one vendor who accepts SNAP or WIC benefits, said Jaime Hadji of the Ohio Farmers Market Network.

“Farmers markets have demonstrated resilience,” Hadji said. “Investment is needed to keep farmers markets and to keep food access.”

Many market vendors at the Second Street Market accept and match food stamp benefits, through a token exchange program offered on site, near the entrance to the outdoor market. The Second Street Market works with Homeful to administer SNAP, Produce Perks, WIC and a senior farmers market program. Record unemployment and the closure of schools has increased the demand for the SNAP program.

“We know we are surrounded by food deserts and we wanted to be able to provide access,” Suda said.

Many vendors have online sales, but Suda said they wanted to be in person too so that they could be more easily accessible. Suda said vendors like Mile Creek Farm have been taking orders online and having customers pick up on Saturdays.

Suda that that although Second Street Market closed in March because of the coronavirus, many farmers markets remained open.

“A lot of farmers markets kept operating and pick up the slack from grocery stores and other distributors,” Suda said.

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Ross Olson, the manager of the Oxford Farmers Market in Butler County, said the market stayed open. When the pandemic began, Olson wrote a letter to the community, saying that the market would stay open and have plenty of food.

“As grocery stores shelves are emptied, and many worry how long we will have to go without, I take comfort in knowing that our local farmers have been hard at work to provide a bountiful harvest, all year long,” Olson said in the letter.

The market there has changed drastically because of the coronavirus by adding an ecommerce shop.

“Boy, have we had to change,” Olson said.

Olson said because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Oxford Farmers Market set up an ecommerce site. Customers can order online and pick up their food on Tuesdays in the parking lot outside of TJ Maxx and Moon Co-op. Olson said the farmers market got a special coronavirus grant from the Oxford Community Foundation to help set up the site.

“Having that financial backing helped us move forward with the ecommerce site,” Olson said.

Olson said the farmers market had previously discussed selling produce and other products online, but had tabled the idea before the pandemic because of a lack of funding.

The Oxford Farmers Market also accepts SNAP, Produce Perks and WIC benefits. Oxford also has a senior farmers market program. The farmers market even accept those food benefits online, which Olson hopes makes the benefits more accessible.

“We haven’t had people take advantage of it, but I’m sure there are people in the community who could use these programs,” Olson said.

Dan Moffitt, a produce vendor at the Fairborn Farmers Market, said the coronavirus impacted his business. Because more people were staying at home and trying to garden on their own, farm equipment was hard to find.

He does not sell his produce online, but thought it was important to get back to the farmers market despite the threat of the coronavirus because that’s where he sells the bulk of his produce.

Moffitt grows produce on two acres and plus a greenhouse near Xenia.

“A lot of people at the Fairborn market will thank us for being there,” Moffitt said, “I know there’s not a lot of options outside of big retailers like Krogers and the farmers market there.”

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The HEROES Act, Olson said, would help “bring everything up to speed” for the farmers market.

“The value that these vendors bring is really being seen in a time like this,” Olson said. “The importance of farmers, local produce and local food is being recognized.”

Food system experts say federal or state funding would be a more sustainable solution to holes in Ohio’s food system.

“This whole situation has really raised awareness of the food system and where the holes are,” Suda said. “I hope that all these things, like the CARES Act and the HEROES Act, benefit everyone by bringing about a more sustainable and reliable food system.”

In addition to aid for families, federal programs and funding for additional coronavirus testing, the HEROES Act passed by the House includes a $100 million appropriation for specialty crop growers. In the CARES Act this funding was to help farmers offset losses due to the pandemic, but it was mostly specialty crop growers that were left out, said Lipstreu.

The group is asking that language be included in the HEROES Act so that this relief would be targeted to growers that sell into direct to consumer markets, like farmers who sell at farmers markets.

The bill also includes funding for the Local Agriculture Market Program which could be used to support farmers, farmers market operators and food system organizations to develop new, alternative marketing projects in response to the pandemic.

The U.S. Senate will consider the HEROES Act later this month.

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