Farmers’ Markets and CSAs Food Security on a Local LevelMar 01, 2021 11:14AM ● By Julie Peterson
From apples to zucchini and everything in between—butter, cheese, eggs, grains, honey, meat, milk, preserves and teas—farmers’ markets have traditionally provided the opportunity to buy locally grown and made foods directly from farmers and producers. A trip to the market helps one learn where food comes from and to make sustainable choices that benefit health and the environment. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how farmers’ markets operate in Virginia, which has hopefully caused many to ponder the importance of the availability of local food.
Early in the pandemic, farmers’ markets in Virginia were not designated as “essential services”. After the shutdown in March, markets had to open in several different phases. Depending on the organization that manages a particular market, some just had to close because of lack of managing employees or because the location was no longer possible. Markets held on hospital or clinic properties are one example.
Markets that were able to open in phases faced obstacles that resulted in additional costs or reduced sales. “There were all kinds of issues. Extra signage was needed, there was a need to enforce masks, social distancing between vendors and then between vendors and customers had to be set up, no samples were allowed, customers were not allowed to touch the produce and it was encouraged to have one family member shop instead of bringing the family,” says Lisa Dearden, one of the founding members of the Virginia Farmers Market Association (VAFMA). In addition, other typical community participants of markets, like fitness classes, artisan booths and food trucks were negatively impacted.
Farm To Family CSA/The Farm Bus was founded by Mark Lilly in Richmond based on his belief that our food system is vulnerable and that something like a pandemic could cause famine. When COVID-19 arrived, he was already able to continue providing food to local communities. His business involves a mobile farmers’ market in a retrofitted school bus, pulling products within 100 miles from a variety of suppliers. “I’ve got so much demand that I can’t keep up the pace,” says Lilly.
While Lilly has several scheduled stops for the bus, sometimes he just posts on social media, “We’re loaded up and ready to go, who wants a visit?” His goal is to have set routes with stops, planned in cooperation with the city, where other farmers and vendors could also use the locations on a rotating basis.
Agriberry Farm, in Hanover, also had high demand in 2020. “The outpouring of support in response to the pandemic has been amazing,” says farm founder Anne Geyer, noting that Agriberry’s prepaid Farm Share Programs, sometimes called CSAs (community supported agriculture), increased from 280 to 650. They are also on pace to do well this year.
Geyer agrees with Lilly in that CSAs help hold a farm together year round. “Farm-share programs enable farmers to raise vital cash during the non-harvest season,” Geyer says.
It was a challenging year for many market managers who needed to learn and implement many rules related to safety during a pandemic. It was also a challenging year for farmers who relied on markets that were closed or who supplied to restaurants that were not functioning at full capacity.
“It’s a new normal and I think people want to come out and support these farmers,” says Dearden. “The good news is that local food is in high demand.” With about 350 farmers’ markets and numerous CSAs, Virginians can find a reliable source of local foods and help support farmers and the organizations that run markets and CSAs.
“Our CSA holds everything together—it’s kind of the glue—it’s the single
best thing you can invest your time and money in to help bring about positive
and immediate changes. Supporting local, organic, in my case supporting
veterans, helping uplift the food community, encouraging people to eat better
and cook at home, supporting farmers, creating jobs, educating kids, having fun
and it’s a trickle down thing,” says Lilly.