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By Rose Hoban
One institution that’s strong in North Carolina is the local food system. The state has one of the most robust farmers market networks in the country, with more than 230 markets and roadside stands scattered across more than half of the state’s counties.
People congregate at markets and in many places, market day provides a place to meet, as well as a place to buy fresh, local produce. But many markets around the state this past weekend looked different, as restrictions related to gatherings of more than 100 people took effect in the wake of a gubernatorial emergency declaration.
“The town of Carrboro has been talking to us a lot about social distancing,” said Maggie Funkhouser, the manager at the Carrboro market, referring to the practice of keeping space between people so the risk of transmitting airborne microorganisms is diminished.
“We are spacing out the vendors as much as possible. Each of them has at least six feet of space in between each vendor, and you know, some of them have 10 feet of space or more,” said Funkhouser, as she gestured around the market on Saturday morning.
Often Carrboro’s market, and others, can have the spaces between the vendors crammed with people, baby strollers and food baskets, but on Saturday, it would have been easy to cleanly roll a bowling ball down the center aisle, maybe bumping one or two ankles.
Market board members pulled in the expertise of Peter Gilligan, a microbiology and immunology expert from UNC Chapel Hill. When farmers arrived on Saturday morning, they found themselves in an impromptu lecture by Gilligan on ways to keep themselves and their customers safe.
“He also recommended that anything we can do to keep people moving,” Funkhouser said.
“You know, ideally, they get in and get what they need and then leave.”
Firefighters from the nearby station were positioned at the entrances to the market, reminding people as they filtered in that, “We’re practicing social distancing!” On occasion, the firefighters would shoo along a crowd.
“It’s kind of reducing crowding and clustering,” Funkhouser said.
At the downtown Durham market, manager Susan Sink said she circulated all morning, likewise spent the day keeping people moving.
Farmers willing participants
“We’ve never had to approach anything like this,” said Alex Hitt, from Peregrine Farm in Alamance County, who is a longtime vendor in Carrboro and has served on the market board.
“It’s both important, obviously, for people to get good food, and for the farmers to be able to sell the food, they work so hard to grow,” he said on Saturday.
Hitt talked about how many local produce farmers work on slim margins, and any loss of income from weather events, reduced ability to sell, or foodborne illness can wipe out a farming family. He said keeping the market open was vital to local agricultural income.
He also spoke to the importance of continuing some aspects of community life.
“I saw this again after 9/11, the community aspect is huge,” he said. “People are freaked out about stuff and so to be able to come here and have some community, even if they have to stay three feet away, I’ve already seen it today that people are relaxed.”
Both Durham and Carrboro had their vendors prepackage bags of vegetables and asked that shoppers not handle the food. Instead, the idea was to have farmers give the food to customers, decreasing the possibility of bacterial contamination from many hands.
Some customers, accustomed to liberal picking, handling, squeezing and sniffing, had to be reminded to stay hands-off. But most people were willing to cooperate, said pecan and egg vendor Alfred de la Houssaye.
“We sell eggs and we just have the eggs [on display] and people could pick them, which is real nice,” he said. Instead, he and his daughter Brianna, both wearing plastic gloves, pre-placed eggs in cartons and left the open cartons on their table, “so people can see what they’re getting and choose their eggs.”
“If you go down to the grocery store today, none of the vegetables are bagged, they’re all on display,” he said. “This market tries to be cleaner than that.”
Many vendors had divided tasks, with one person behind the table handling the produce and a different person handling money.
Market managers had farmers take tablecloths off their tables, which were sprayed down often. And there were signs everywhere.
“We’re not doing anything really different than we would do in our cheese room,” said Celebrity Dairy goat cheese producer Britt Pfann. “If you’re doing food manufacturing, this is what you do every day. We’re kind of extending that to market.”
But there were no samples of cheese or any other type of food.
“We think that will come back some time,” Pfann said. “After the dust settles.”
According to Funkhouser, in Carrboro, municipal officials there were wary of allowing a public gathering that could provide a venue for transmitting the virus. So, she felt like she had something to prove.
“We set up this extra hand washing station … that people have been using quite a bit. And I printed out some kind of infographics about COVID-19. And how to prevent it spreading, that sort of thing.”
On the advice of the UNC microbiologist, Funkhouser also told vendors not to accept coins, but instead to round up or down to the nearest dollar.
Durham market manager Susan Sink said that city officials in Durham were happy to help her change things around. She spread out her vendors over the entire footprint of the market, which included using the adjacent street.
“In fact, the police stopped by before we even set up this morning, said hello, asked if we needed anything,” she said.
Gov. Roy Cooper issued an order restricting public gatherings of more than 100 people Saturday afternoon, but the order exempts airports, bus and train stations, medical facilities, libraries, shopping malls and centers, and other such spaces where more than 100 persons might gather. It also does not include office environments, restaurants, factories, grocery stores or other retail establishments.
“Food is one of the most essential elements to survival, and it is important that we continue the operation of food sites such as the farmers markets even in the wake of this extraordinary global pandemic,” wrote Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler in an email to NC Health News. “We are fortunate in North Carolina to have a strong agricultural industry, which means consumers have access to fresh local foods. Supporting local farms is important to continuing to have this access.”
“The key message we’re trying to help people get out is that if grocery stores are open, I don’t know why farmers markets shouldn’t be open,” said Roland McReynolds. “There’s no difference in the risk to public health, from going to a grocery store or going to a farmers market.
“We’re very concerned that farmers are going to lose out from this.“
Just in case, though, many of the farmers at both Carrboro and Durham said they were making contingency plans to open roadside stands, and pickup and delivery services, just in case.
- WNC Farmers Market, Asheville https://www.ncagr.gov/markets/facilities/markets/asheville/index.htm
- Robert G. Shaw Piedmont Triad Farmers Market https://www.ncagr.gov/markets/facilities/markets/triad/index.htm
- Charlotte Regional Farmers Market https://www.ncagr.gov/markets/facilities/markets/charlotte/index.htm
- State Farmers Market, Raleigh https://www.ncagr.gov/markets/facilities/markets/raleigh/index.htm
For information about North Carolina’s 230+ local farmers markets, the N.C. Deparment of Agriculture and Consumer Services suggested consumers check with individual market locations as to hours of operation.
A listing of local farmers markets is here:
A listing of local farmers markets is here: https://www.ncfarmfresh.com/CertifiedStands.asp
The Carolina Farm Stewardship Association created a list and map of farms around North and South Carolina offering on-farm pickups, home delivery, and pre-orders. https://www.carolinafarmstewards.org/on-farm-pickups/