Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on theeaglecoronavirusproject.com, a separate website created by Eagle staff at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in spring 2020. Articles from that website have been migrated to The Eagle’s main site and backdated with the dates they were originally published in order to allow readers to access them more easily.
Farmers markets throughout the District have been applying for waivers to operate as essential businesses during the coronavirus pandemic after Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered that they were not to operate during the health emergency.
The mayor’s Office of Planning requires farmers market operators to complete an online application if they want to continue to serve their communities during the public health emergency. The application asks if markets can implement safety measures like no-touch policies between customers and produce, eliminating non-food vendors to reduce the number of people in one area, and ending on-site food preparation.
Markets with more than 25 stalls can apply for two week waivers, while markets with less than 25 stalls can apply for three week waivers, according to an email sent by Mekdy Alemayehu, a D.C. government communications officer.
Eastern Market did not operate on Sunday, after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19.
“While it is impossible to pinpoint the origin of infections during community spread, the District is working to ensure farmers markets implement rigorous social distancing and public health measures to protect the health of both customers and workers,” Alemayehu said in the email.
Jonathan Bardzik is a farmers market advocate who teaches the joy of food and cooking. He shares these stories at farmers markets in D.C. and across the country, often using only food available at the market he is visiting.
Bardzik teaches that “food is such an easily accessible joy.” But, with impulse buying at grocery stores causing key produce to fly off shelves, Bardzik said, availability has been a challenge for many.
That’s why farmers markets are so essential now, he said. Bardzik said he’s happy with how the D.C. government has been responding quickly to the crisis.
“They understand the pain that’s being inflicted,” Bardzik said. “They understand that farm markets are crucial access points for food.”
For years, Bardzik has visited the Dupont Circle farmers market for his produce, and he hasn’t stopped now.
He said the market now only lets a certain number of people in at once with only one path guiding shoppers through the space. Produce is pre-bagged, and customers can no longer touch the produce. Some markets have implemented pre-order and pickup options to reduce crowding and limit touch.
According to the market’s website, the Dupont market and others owned by the FRESHFARM organization have implemented hand-washing stations and have banned product sampling.
FRESHFARM Director of Communications and Outreach Molly Scalise said that the organization was already discussing how to change market operations for safety before D.C. began closing businesses.
Every week, FRESHFARM has been adding a new safety measure, Scalise said. First the Dupont market added hand-washing stations, and lately they’ve been refining pre-order and pickup availability.
Vendors have been allowed to skip markets if they feel unsafe attending the market, Scalise said. FRESHFARM has been following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, instructing vendors to stay home if they feel sick to try to avoid the spread of potential positive COVID-19 cases, Scalise said.
“We see ourselves the same as grocery stores,” Scalise said. “Access to fresh, healthy food is important, especially now.”
Scalise said FRESHFARM has received mainly positive feedback, but customers still have problems with the long wait times to enter the markets and say there are too many people in the market at once.
Bardzik said he feels safer at farmers markets than at grocery stores.
But farmers markets will feel the financial burden, like any other part of the economy, Bardzik said. There are fewer vendors, less produce to be sold and less-willing customers.
Disparaged communities who live in food deserts, which tend to be African American and Latino communities, will be impacted too, Bardzik said.
Scalise said that FRESHFARM decided to reopen the Dupont market because the market still reaches a lot of people from different economic backgrounds. To continue supporting various communities, Scalise said the market is still accepting payments from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and other food assistance programs.
Despite the financial fears and overhaul of operations at these markets, Bardzik said these markets have remained “community spaces,” where he thinks people “treat each other better.”
In times of social distancing, when people rely on their pantries more than going out for meals, “having access to fresh food, seeing the people who produce it,” Bardzik said, “adds normalcy and joy.”