While the current pandemic conditions have placed a lot of undue pressure on many family farm operations, like many other industries, it has also inspired a little innovation—and innovation that could stay with us for some time.
As many farmers attempt to make pivots away from their restaurant-based clientele, for many there has been an industrywide hunger for a new source of business—or at a minimum, a simple means to keep money flowing and the lights on. And as many farmers transitioning to grocery stores are struggling with this due to concerns related to shipping, packaging, and volume, renewed calls to shut down grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and other essential locations have only gotten louder.
For most Americans, including us, this measure is a non-starter. Not only would it deny hardworking individuals the ability to obtain groceries, but it would also devastate family farms and leave a productivity vacuum that could only be filled by industrialized operations—and invariably decrease the quality of our food. Lucky for us, as farmers become increasingly dependent on farmers’ markets, the marketplace has become increasingly-reliable thanks to the power of the internet.
Now, as it becomes unclear as to when we really will be able to return to normal, Farmers Markets are moving to the online pace, allowing for customers to safely order their produce for pick up, or in some cases, even delivery. Like the markets themselves, the transition to online is not a broadly-implemented operation the way that we see with some grocery stores. Instead, these are individual markets deciding to offer services online and to directly compete with their grocery store counterparts. Some examples include Gardens of Babylon in Nashville, TN, The Guilderland Farmers’ Market in Guilderland, NY, and The Carrboro Farmers’ Market, in Carrboro, NC. As you can see, this is not unique to one region or one marketplace: Farmers’ markets all over America are currently offering online services, so it is worthwhile to take a look and see if there are any options nearby that will keep you safe at home.
If we are being honest with ourselves, farmers’ markets have rarely, if ever, been associated with the accessibility and convenience that comes from being on the internet. But as COVID-19 forces many farmers’ market organizers and farmers to reconsider how they are doing business, one of the implications of going online could be the creation of a new type of farmers’ market that is more capable of effectively combatting food deserts
Though farmers’ markets are often hailed as bastions of sustainable eating, and a small return to society’s Neolithic roots, they are also seen as clear examples of food inequity. While programs exist to put more farmers’ markets in economically vulnerable communities, many of these programs are new and do not have very much traction. Additionally, while there are food voucher programs for farmers’ markets, some are wholly ineffective—giving as little as $24 per YEAR towards helping people buy farmers market groceries. Additionally, as the rates of food stamp shoppers have gradually declined at farmers’ markets, it is not uncommon for such gatherings to be seen as yet another convenience of “white, rich, foodies.” This negative perception is further compounded by the fact that poor communities in the United States disproportionately tend to be communities of color, which means that the effects of a general lack of access to Farmers Markets—or even quality supermarkets—is an issue that is partially responsible for significant health disparities in African American communities. For example, while African Americans account for 13% of the US population, they account for more than 30% of all COVID-19 infections nationwide—primarily due to these disparities in health and food access.
While little can be done about the affordability of the marketplace, as small batches of anything will be more expensive to produce per unit than large batches, the gradual shift to online Farmers Markets can address the issues of both geographic accessibility and emotional insecurity for minority populations.
For most, the problem of geographic accessibility of farmers’ markets would be solved with deliveries in and of themselves. The truth of the matter is that many farmers’ markets are not situated in centrally-accessible areas, and generally tend to be located in areas of higher economic earning. For those that can afford farmers’ markets, but simply do not go for the fact that they are geographically far away, this can potentially solve that problem by allowing for the farm to directly deliver to a person’s table. Of course, deliveries systems are only as good as their radius, so it is unclear as to how accessible online systems truly can be. On one hand, while they can increase access, on the other, they can decrease access if the delivery radius is not particularly far, and the marketplace is not accepting any in-person visits.
Concerning emotional insecurity, this is a factor that is less discussed. However, for some minority populations—especially those that can afford food from farmers markets, co-ops and health food stores—a feeling of social alienation and “otherness” can accompany trips to these locations for minorities. As a result, places like farmers’ markets can be intimidating—not only because the experience is different from what is found at a grocery store—but also because these places tend to be racially homogenous. Deliveries also eliminate this barrier and turn farmers’ markets into less of a social staple for upper-income whites, and more of what it should have been seen as all along: a healthy and viable food option for those that can afford it.
As farmers’ markets begin to experiment with this potential service, its success hinges upon its utilization. If it is successful, then perhaps it will be important to implement as a permanent addition to our society. Ultimately, while COVID-19 may produce new problems for our society, I think it is safe to say that it will also be responsible for new solutions to some of our oldest problems. However, as the disease’s spread slows down—when it slows down—the question will then concern the permanence of such services.