At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, farmers market advocates successfully argued for markets across the country to continue operating as essential businesses. Yet as the pandemic stretches into its third month, many markets face existential budget shortfalls as the public health emergency keeps shoppers home and raises their operating costs.
And federal assistance earmarked for small businesses has so far not been accessible to many organizations that run farmers markets, leaving them without a safety net.
“Markets have done an incredible job in terms of implementing policies and procedures to make sure markets are as safe as possible. They’ve transformed markets into one of the safest places to shop for your groceries,” says Ben Feldman, executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition, a national advocacy group. But those efforts, such as expanded staff training, protective equipment, or new software for online ordering, “don’t come without cost.”
In some cases, those new costs are exceeding the markets’ budgets. Market operating costs are often paid by vendors’ fees, which cover staff time, equipment, and other needs. But some markets have fewer vendors this season, in part due to farmers’ concerns about exposing themselves or their workers to Covid-19, which has resulted in less revenue for markets, says Carle Brinkman, the food and farming program director at the Ecology Center in Berkeley, California.
“A lot of farmers markets across California really operate on a shoestring budget,” Brinkman says. “All the additional labor and inputs and costs could be a serious threat to their continuation.”
Some markets have also reduced the number of vendors in order to adhere to social distancing guidelines, Brinkman says. Markets that are constrained to a specific footprint, especially in urban settings, have in some cases accepted fewer vendors in order to make enough space for customers to shop safely. The combination of less revenue and higher costs is a potentially existential threat for many markets. According to a survey conducted by the Farmers Market Coalition, over 70 percent of markets are facing reduced income during the pandemic and over 90 percent are experiencing higher costs. Another survey conducted by the Ecology Center, on behalf of the California Alliance of Farmers’ Markets, found that nearly 20 percent of respondents were concerned that their markets may be forced to shutter due to the economic hit from the pandemic.
Market advocates say that federal assistance is essential to keep markets afloat. But the federal government’s coronavirus relief packages have so far not provided assistance for many markets. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a cornerstone of the federal pandemic aid for small businesses, is only available to 501c(3) nonprofits, and not other forms of 501(c) organizations that run farmers markets, like social welfare and agricultural groups. As a result, many farmers market organizations have not been able to apply for the forgivable loan program.
The $3-trillion Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions, or HEROES Act, passed by the House on May 15 would expand PPP eligibility to all nonprofits, and earmark $50 million in grants for entities that are eligible for a Farmers Market or Local Food Promotion Program Grant. But the bill is not expected to pass.
Federal aid could also come in the form of the Farm to Fridge Act, a bill set to be introduced today by Rep. Grace Meng of New York City and Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, which would allocate $34 million in emergency funds for Covid-19-related losses to entities that are eligible for the Local Agriculture Market Program, including farmers markets. The bill has been endorsed by the National Producers of Milk Federation, New York Farm Bureau, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and the Farmers Markets Coalition.
The weakened position of markets is not only an issue for the farmers who rely on them for income, but also an obstacle to food security for low-income shoppers. In many communities, participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program can get their food assistance dollars doubled at farmers markets. But the pandemic has upended that program at some markets that have shifted to an online pre-pay model to accommodate low- or no-contact shopping. That raises equity concerns, says Alice Evans, executive director of the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network.
“What does access look like for older folks, low-income folks, people who might be having a hard time accessing the markets right now?” she says. “Who’s getting left out?”
The threat facing markets could also result in an economic hit to the local food economy in many regions, says Feldman.
“We don’t care about farmers markets in and of themselves,” he says. “It’s the livelihood of farmers. Without those markets, those farmers don’t have an outlet to sell their produce.”