Our food system has taken hits from COVID-19. You’ve read about it, maybe felt it firsthand. Endless food pantry lines, scrambles to feed kids out of school, and supply chain disruptions for farms and food retail alike. A shuttered restaurant industry. Supermarkets facing food shortages, suppliers figuring out their pivots, farms forced to discard food. Our food system has shown its fragility, but also revealed opportunities toward resilience and values-based food work. We’ve seen a surge in local food interest, renewed focus on regional food systems, and critical conversations on equity.
One bright spot from 2020 is the growth of direct-to-consumer local food demand, the very stuff of farm-to-table. Even pre-pandemic, farms selling directly through farmers markets, CSA programs, or farm stands were more likely to stay in business.
Now the pandemic has moved farmers markets even closer to the forefront. After early shocks, safety-conscious customers flocked to outdoor farmers markets. In the months since, markets have provided a lifeline for farmer sales, and have met new demand for local food with innovative programs.
As conventional food supply chains have stabilized, will these new local customers be kept? If local food systems can hold these new customers, will our overall food system be better prepared for the next crisis?
Farmers markets are key in these farm-direct customer relationships and in food system resilience. While not the largest sector in food system economies, they still bring over US$2.4 billion in sales to farms annually. They provide a physical face for food access, crucial space for smaller, newer farms to connect directly to the public, and a vital platform for nimble, innovative responses to food system challenges.
The future of our food system depends on what we can learn from 2020.
At Community Food Lab, we conducted a study of farmers markets in North Carolina over the summer. Our findings largely aligned with national trends: while seeing fewer casual visitors, market sales have increased overall. Farmers markets are proving their vital role in connecting farmers and consumers as other supply chains are disrupted.
We also found through our research that farmers markets are missing out on the Black community. A truly resilient and sustainable farmers market system will include all farmers, and access for all consumers.
As we look forward, we see the following lessons for resilient farmers markets:
1. See farmers markets as system builders
Farmers markets naturally connect resources and needs around local farm economies, community relationships, and healthy food access—all on the upswing in 2020. As connectors, farmers markets are facilitating virtual sales and food access measures with farmers and communities, becoming virtual or real food hubs and sales multipliers. As anchors in local food systems, farmers markets can catalyze resilience through engagement, networks, and smart infrastructure and programs.
2. Get beyond the stereotypes – include more Black vendors and leaders
Looking specifically into racial equity, we found that over a third of N.C. markets had no vendors of color at all. At the same time, markets with BIPOC among leadership or vendors were more likely to grow sales in 2020. Farmers markets are in a position to build resilience and equity—for themselves and our food systems—by empowering marginalized farmers, expanding fresh food access, and fighting healthy living misconceptions.
3. Embrace innovation
COVID-19 made traditional farmers markets—busy, crowded, and social—nearly impossible to maintain. Innovations emerged to get food to customers: curbside pickup, preorder, and food box programs. These provide a safe and flexible form of market experience that is supporting farmers and making healthy food accessible in new ways.
They are also maintaining—or even boosting—sales despite safety challenges. In N.C., markets with these programs were much more likely to see sales growth in 2020. These and future initiatives have considerable potential to increase local food access even beyond the pandemic.
4. Get connected
Partnerships bring crucial support in times of crisis. As markets faced uncertainty during shutdowns, policy relationships helped markets stay open and safe. Organizational partnerships have helped supply PPE, fund SNAP programs, and create plans. Local and national networks have shared ideas, resources, and platforms.
In N.C., we found that markets with government sponsorship (an important form of partnership) trended toward sales growth and were less likely to have to cancel market days. It is clear that support structures—whether with local governments, organizations, or other local networks—are deeply impactful and worth building further.
5. Funding, funding, funding
We’ve seen momentum and innovation build around farmers markets this year, but they require support. In N.C. and nationally, markets are reporting increased staffing and funding needs to implement the programs that are keeping communities fed and farmers in business. SNAP/EBT and nutrition incentive programs are crucial to support food access. Federal and state-level farmers market promotion initiatives increase operational capacity. Research into farmers markets maximizes knowledge and impact. 2020 has demonstrated the potential that farmers markets have to support local food systems, and we must support them in return.
Photo courtesy of Gabriella Clare Marino, Unsplash