Farmers and food groups innovate to keep operations viable as the coronavirus spreads

For Jody Osmund, who runs Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm with his partner, Beth, in Ottawa, Illinois, the shuttering of public spaces to mitigate the spread of the new coronavirus presents a significant challenge. He typically distributes his farm shares at brewery taprooms around the Chicago area, which allows him to share a pint with customers while supporting local businesses. So how should he proceed when many bars and restaurants are closed, and heath guidelines demand that people keep their distance?

Enter the pool noodle.

Osmund used the noodle to mark out a safe distance between him and the members of his community-supported agriculture program at this week’s distribution site. “I’d take their name and get their CSA share. Then [I] would set it down for them and back away before they would pick it up,” he described via email. “It was a little awkward, but the pool noodle was disarming and brought a little levity.”

As the spread of the coronavirus causes many cities to curtail public gatherings, farmers who sell directly to customers at farmers’ markets and through CSAs are coming up with novel solutions at breakneck speed to keep their customers fed and their operations viable.

Some food distribution groups are even rethinking their entire delivery model, trying to ensure that farmers still have a market and customers still have access to fresh food.

Their adaptations include, of course, improving sanitary practices by frequently washing hands and offering sanitizer to customers. Farmers at markets are wearing gloves, handling produce themselves rather than having shoppers select items, and eliminating sampling. Those who distribute CSA shares are pre-bagging and bringing them to customers’ cars or operating in the parking lots of the closed business or churches where they would otherwise distribute.

Some organizations are piloting home delivery for the first time, as many shoppers are self-isolating or quarantined at home. Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s Market Mobile program typically delivers wholesale orders of local produce and other farm goods to restaurants and universities across the state. But this week, the group rolled out a new system that allowed individual households to place orders online and have food dropped off right at their door.

“First we heard the colleges were closing and then the restaurants were closing, and we all of a sudden had a really tough choice to make,” said Nikki Ayres, sales manager for the Market Mobile program. “Producers needed an outlet for all of this food. … It’s scary out there if you’re a food producer and all of a sudden you lose contracts with colleges.”

The organization announced its home delivery service on Monday, and Ayres said orders started rolling in immediately. She said some farmers who work with the organization are even selling more food this week than they typically do.

“We’ve had some producers that came in yesterday and said, ‘This is the biggest order I’ve dropped here all year,’ ” she said. “It’s been a pretty amazing shift to watch.”

The Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture in Alexandria, Virginia, has also adopted a system that enables customers to place orders in advance. The center has a mobile farmers’ market that travels to communities around Washington, D.C., that have less access to local and fresh food. This week, instead of having a free-choice market, the organization took pre-orders and bagged up customers’ food for them.

“Our customer base, who already experience food insecurity and barriers to accessing food every day, are now further isolated,” said Erin Close, who directs the Mobile Market program. “Local farmers, many of whom work with restaurants that are now closed, are scrambling to find other outlets. … Now more than ever we see the vital role we fill.”

During the first day of the new distribution system, the mobile market sold $1,600 worth of food, all of which was sourced from local farms and the organization’s own farm. The group also worked with DC Central Kitchen, a local nonprofit, to distribute free meals at the produce pickup sites. Close says they’re already working on planning the next mobile distribution day.

These adaptations can present new challenges. Market Mobile’s Ayres says the organization is still working through the complex logistics of home delivery, but they hope to keep the model going as the public health crisis unfolds.

Many local and regional food producers and markets have advocated this week that their services should be classified as “essential” and allowed to operate even as restaurants and bars are forced to close in many cities. Several jurisdictions and states — including California’s San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Clara County, and San Mateo County, and the states of Minnesota, Virginia, and Pennsylvania — have declared in the past few days that farmers’ markets are essential businesses and will be allowed to continue operating.

Farm groups have also called on policymakers to include local and regional farmers in the next federal emergency aid package for coronavirus relief, which is expected to focus on small businesses. On Thursday, 37 members of Congress, led by Rep. Anthony Delgado of New York, signed a letter to House and Senate leaders asking that the next stimulus package include disaster payments for farmers who sell locally and regionally.

“As both chambers begin work on additional stimulus measures to mitigate the severe economic disruption caused by COVID-19, we urge you to keep in mind the perilous position of small- and medium-sized farms — many of whom are already struggling during a prolonged downturn in the farm economy,” the letter reads. “These producers may soon face unprecedented disruptions to market access as direct-to-consumer sales slow with the closure of farmers’ markets and schools. What’s more, they won’t have the support of conventional farm safety net programs such as commodity support initiatives and crop insurance during market restrictions.”