How to Shop Safely at the Farmer's Market During the Coronavirus Pandemic
Regional farmers need our support right now—and we need farm-fresh produce more than ever. Here's how to shop smart at your local farmer's market.
As restaurant customers have ceased ordering and fewer people are shopping at farmer's markets, small-scale regional farms have taken a huge hit. The combined impact on sales has already been devastating to many. Research shows that the cost of Coronavirus to farm-to-consumer programs like farmer's markets could reach well into the billions.
All of this is to say that now is the time to support regional farmers, while exercising best practices for the safety of you and those around you.
Just like grocery stores, Farmer’s Markets and CSA's that have been permitted to remain open in states such as California and New York are working to ensure both farmers and consumers are safe. Be sure to double-check the safety measures that have been implemented for your local farmer's market and/or CSA to decide whether they work for you.
In New York City, for example, GrowNYC, the nonprofit that supports New York City's vast network of greenmarkets, closed all its NYC markets for two days to reconfigure them with additional safety protocols. These included dramatically increasing its footprint of markets to allow for social distancing; spacing market tents apart at least 10 feet; reconfiguring some markets to limit the number of customers shopping at any given time; adding additional demarcations to keep shoppers at least six feet apart; and engaging additional GrowNYC staff to regulate customer flow and ensure social distancing.
Other voluntary safety protocols include prohibiting customers from handling any products prior to purchase (only gloved staff can do so); suspension of all sampling by vendors; requirement of all vendors to wear protective gloves; and availability of hand sanitizer at every market.
All producers must also sanitize their stands and equipment at regular intervals throughout the day; all GrowNYC staff and Producers must not work or attend markets if feeling ill and all staff processing cash/credit/debit/SNAP transactions must wear protective gloves. These safety protocols are currently being used as a model for farmers markets across the country. The Farmers Market Coalition has also issued a list of best practices.
CSAs are also shifting policies and procedures. Local Roots, a CSA serving New York City, has adopted a set of new COVID-19 policies. In the warehouse, all team members wear gloves when handling products, tabletops in the warehouse are disinfected daily, all delivery team members wear gloves when delivering boxes, and delivery team members will practice social distancing and leave boxes in lobby areas or with doormen to avoid contact with members.
Additional safety measures are also being instituted at CSA sites. Market Leaders are the only people onsite who handle and distribute produce; produce items are pre-weighed and pre-bagged to avoid members touching product and to allow members a faster turnaround time. A six-foot separation rule is also enforced, and all weekly recipes will be sent virtually to avoid any contact with paper printouts.
In addition, some CSAs like Local Roots are offering contactless delivery of bundles to those who prefer not to leave home. Dawn Casale, who owns the popular Brooklyn bakery One Girl Cookies with her husband Dave Crofton, opted into this delivery program.
“I was given the option of changing my pick-up location, adding delivery to my home for $15, or pausing my subscription, which I did not want to do,” she said. “I feel really good about using a CSA right now. It’s fewer hands touching my food than grocery stores, and I feel good because it's local. Those are important factors normally but particularly so now. But most of all I want to continue using my CSA because I know how much the farmers need it now.”
As for the safest way to shop at your Farmers Market or CSA, Dr. Robert Amler, Dean of the School of Health Sciences and Practice at New York Medical College, and a former CDC Chief Medical Officer who coordinated medical monitoring for anthrax response teams, says to follow many of the same rules as he would suggest for grocery shopping.
Keep Your Distance.
When shopping, always maintain your social distance. "Try to go to the market when it's not so crowded and always keep six feet between you and others," says Dr. Amler.
Fresh Food Is Safe.
To date, there is no evidence of coronavirus transmission through food. Transmission risk is greatest from infected people, which is why social distance and hand washing are crucial when dealing with food and deliveries of packages.
According to the FDA, "unlike foodborne gastrointestinal viruses like norovirus and hepatitis A that often make people ill through contaminated food, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, is a virus that causes respiratory illness. Foodborne exposure to this virus is not known to be a route of transmission."
Dr. Amler says it is safe to eat fresh produce, but to make sure to scrub it well in water. "We know scrubbing is particularly effective in removing this kind of virus," he said. "You should rinse your produce anyway, for any kind of chemical residue."
If you would feel better, you can cook it; piping hot foods are safe as the virus cannot survive. In a recent blog post, Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard Professor, of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, Emerita, at New York University, suggested following the "P" rules—rules followed in countries without safe water supplies—only eat foods that are:
- Piping hot (hot temperatures destroy viruses and other microorganisms)
- Peeled (wash hands before and after)
- Purified (cooked and not recontaminated)
- Packaged (industrially packed, frozen, or dried)
Wash Your Hands. Don’t Touch Your Face. And Clean Your Food Carefully.
All the usual common sense rules apply to this sort of shopping. Once you have paid and all groceries are bagged up, sanitize your hands before heading home, and try not to touch your face. Wash your hands when you get home, then organize an area for unwashed produce and other foods, and a separate area for cleaned and safe-to-eat foods. Methodically work your way through your farmer's market stash, then pack your foods away and wash your hands again. “This is not about science but a lot about common sense. Think about all the surfaces that have been touched by others that you are now touching, and what you are potentially bringing home,” he said. "Wipe down what you can and wash everything."
Kindness Is Key.
We are all in this together, and the farmers, CSA managers, and delivery workers are all facing serious risks just by clocking in every day. Perhaps that’s why one of the most important ways to get through this time is to remember to be kind, and to share gratitude freely. That’s something Dr. Amler says he has already noticed when he is out and about. "I have seen a lot more gratitude and courtesy all around," he said. "I see how appreciative people are of those working in the stores and markets." Perhaps a silver lining in this dark cloud.