This story has been updated.
Recent weeks have brought increased attention, and concern, for the food supply chain. Big farms have dumped milk and plowed crops like beans without harvesting them because schools and other institutions aren’t open to buy their products during the shutdown. Small, local farmers and farm markets are having to figure out new ways to connect with customers, and get their food to people, especially those who need it most.
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How one farm shifted when restaurants closed
At Who Cooks For You Farm in Clarion County, the greenhouse is full of vegetable plants, and co-owner Chris Brittenburg has started moving them into the field. “We’ll be transplanting lettuces, sugar snap peas, scallions, beets, things like that,” he said.
Most years, about half of what the farm grows is sold to restaurants in the Pittsburgh area on their online marketplace. In early March, they had carrots, turnips and greens available for restaurants. But then, Covid-19 hit. “We were basically seeing on Instagram that people were closing,” said farm co-owner Aeros Lillstrom, “The Governor closed the restaurants, people that were trying to continue to be open, we were there for them, still selling to them,” she said.
But Lillstrom could see restaurant sales weren’t going to be anywhere near what they’d planned. “We quickly transitioned to making our onlines sales for the public,” she said. “That was almost an immediate decision that we made.”
They quickly sold out of their last carrots and turnips.
In past years, the farm sold shares in a Community Supported Agriculture program, where individual customers pay upfront for a membership in the farm. Then during the growing season customers pick up a box of produce at select Pittsburgh farm markets. In recent years, the farm moved away from the CSA model. But as restaurant sales stopped, it started to make sense again.
“It was very fast. We had people flooding in,” Lillstrom said, “…our e-mail [was] just beeping constantly, [with] all these new customers.”
Who Cooks for You Farm had 70 new customer orders, up from just a handful in previous years.
Local food buying, and CSA sales in particular, are suddenly booming again. “It’s just gone through the roof, and nationally, not just here,” said Alice Julier, director of the Center for Regional Agriculture, Food, and Transformation at Chatham University.
Their popularity had been waning so it’s been surprising to see people suddenly snapping up CSA memberships, according to Julier.
“[CSAs] feel secure. So anybody that can tap into that, CSA sales have surged…because it’s a way for people to get vegetables really easily, for farms to package,” she said.
And now local farms are starting to allow people to order exactly what they want online, and then pick up packaged boxes.
Farmers Markets are Making Safety Adjustments
Farm markets are considered essential businesses in Pennsylvania, and many are currently figuring out how to operate safely. The Farmers Market Coalition has a new best practices guide for their members.
“One of the questions about markets is, will we be able to provide enough…safety measures for people to feel comfortable in those spaces?” Julier asked.
Some farmers markets, including the five run by the city of Pittsburgh, are starting to require pre-orders. Customers will only come to the markets to pickup their purchases.
“Moving to an online platform decrease time each customer needs to spend in the marketplace,” said Emily Bourne, market manager for the city. “It can be much more of an ‘enter, find your vendor, find your item’ situation. There’s no time to browse.” She added that there won’t be live music or places to sit down.
The city has also just told vendors it’s delaying opening of its markets from early May until June this year to prepare.
The Bloomfield Saturday Market in Pittsburgh is usually open most weeks through the year, and can attract a couple of thousand people, but it closed in March.
“One week we had a really vibrant, fun, full market, and the next week we’re considering that farmers markets, as most everybody knows them and loves them, will not exist like that anymore for the foreseeable future,” said Christina Howell, executive director of the Bloomfield Development Corporation, which runs the Bloomfield market.
That market is currently looking for a new, larger space, for social distancing. “So there’s a one-way aisle with vendors on either side so that there’s plenty of room for people in the middle to wait in front of a vendor stall,” Howell explained. “There’s a one-in one-out system.”
Like the Pittsburgh city markets, Bloomfield is also considering a pre-order, and then pick-up option, that would allow people to drive up to the market and get their order placed directly into their vehicle.
“We’ve heard from a lot of people, ‘You should move to this model of…your vendors only taking orders online, and then there can be no currency exchanged,’ ” Howell said. But Bloomfield wants to provide more options because moving to online sales only “excludes the ability of low income people to shop at a farmers market, and that’s not acceptable.”
The federal government doesn’t currently allow Pennsylvanians to use SNAP or other food benefits online. “They cannot order online, they can’t place an order, at all,” Howell lamented.
Markets look to address increasing food insecurity
With the economy faltering, more people are suddenly food insecure, but the state cannot yet tell how many additional people are seeking SNAP food stamp benefits, according to PA Department of Human Services (DHS) press secretary Erin James.
DHS is considering whether to try allowing SNAP recipients to order food online. “We are evaluating the effectiveness of participating in the federal pilot based on all of the current priorities with SNAP and working to establish a timeline to determine when a pilot could be implemented in Pennsylvania,” James said in an email.
People on food assistance are a sizable portion of the customer base at farm markets in Allegheny County. The non-profit Just Harvest, which helps local farm markets establish programs to accept SNAP and other food benefits, finds that these programs accounted for more than 20% of all electronic sales across 21 markets in the county in 2019.
Pittsburgh wants its markets to allow people on food assistance, or without internet access, to call-in their pre-orders, according to the city’s Emily Bourne. They’re working with Just Harvest so food benefits can be exchanged at the market for plastic tokens, and then used to pay vendors for those pre-orders.
Meanwhile, Helen Gerhardt of Lawrenceville United is working with volunteers to figure out how deliver to people in her community who are sick or can’t get to their farmers market for other reasons. “Seniors and people with disabilities find it difficult to get down that big hill to the farmers market and back up,” she said, “People who have kids, and now it’s much more dangerous to travel by bus with kids to a market [because of cover-19]. We can bring that food to them.”
Who Cooks for You Farm’s Chris Brittenburg said his farm is also talking about direct delivery. Like everyone else, they’re trying make sure those beets and sugar snap peas don’t go to waste.
“We’re on the fly here, we’re shooting from the hip,” he said. “And it’s very intense because we grow a lot of food and we need to get it to people.”