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Make your Farmers Market Shopping Pandemic-Safe

The number of farmers markets has steadily grown, according to the USDA, from under 7,200 in 2011 to over 8,600 today. This growth, fueled in part by consumers’ increased interest in organic food and healthier eating, has risen even more during the COVID-19 crisis, as a recent GMI Research poll revealed. Farmers markets also offer the added pandemic-era advantage of being held outdoors, and, as epidemiologist Julia L. Marcus told the New York Times: “We know that being outdoors is lower risk for coronavirus transmission than being indoors.”

While the CDC and FDA both state there is no evidence of food being associated with the transmission of COVID-19, it still is vital for farmers markets’ vendors and visitors to follow best safety practices, including observing social distancing, wearing a mask, washing your hands before, during, and after shopping (and using markets’ hand-sanitizing stations), as well as refraining from touching your mouth, eyes or nose. 

So before you head out to your local farmers market to celebrate National Farmers Market Week, August 2-8, check out these precautions farmers markets are taking – and ideas consumers can include – to make market shopping trips safer for everyone. 

Markets Re-made: One-way markets are confronting the coronavirus is by restructuring their physical layout. New York City’s Greenmarket, the nation’s largest network of urban farmers markets, has instituted a pandemic protocol that involves such changes as reducing markets’ footprints and increasing chalk and tape lines to help visitors with social distancing. 

Similarly, the Washington State’s department of health outlined new guidelines that recommend vendors get set up in a single line (rather than a U shape) to reduce crowding, along with eliminating on-site dining and seating areas, discontinuing product sampling and demonstration stations,encouraging “single shoppers” (having only one family member visit the market) and instituting a no-pet policy. A Rutgers University research team advises markets to have science-based information available for market-goers so they better understand these risk reduction measures.

Down in Greenville, South Carolina, the redesigned TD Essential Market cut its number of vendors in half and switched from being an open market to having two entrance/exit points, with staff members controlling the number of people inside the market. 

The Worthington Farmer’s Market, outside of Columbus, Ohio, innovatively transformed into a drive-through market for several weeks at the start of the pandemic, with customers pre-ordering online and accepting their food without leaving their cars. More recently, this market reopened at a new outdoor location that has limited entry and a one-way loop to provide a safe, healthy environment.

Do Your Homework: Check to see if your market offers online ordering. As Dr. Theresa Brennan, the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics’ chief medical officer, told the Food Network, “It’s obviously safer because (you) don’t have to interact with people.” Shoppers going to The Market at Pepper Place in Birmingham, Alabama, for example, can prepay online or utilize a cashless app. At some markets, there often is the added convenience of picking up pre-orders at specific areas. 

With a little advance online research, folks also can discover useful information about area farmers markets, such as their public health policies, busy times (so you can avoid them), and other helpful material to make for a safer, more efficient shopping outing. “When shoppers see a map prior to getting to the market, they know where the vendors are and what they will be offering, and it allows for that constant flow,” as Cameron Campbell, who oversees the TD Essential Market, explained to Real Simple.

Another smart tip is to eat before you leave, so you’re not shopping on a hungry stomach – plus, most markets aren’t giving out free samples now – and to clean your countertops beforehand, so there’s one less thing to remember when you return from shopping. 

Keep Your Hands To Yourself: One crucial change in market shopping is touching food items as little as you can. “If you touch it, take it. Don’t fondle the food, smell it or squeeze it,” shared  Dr. Tania Elliott, an infectious disease, allergy and immunology expert, with Food Network. 

Seek out vendors who are minimizing contact between the customers, the food, and themselves. One reduced-touch option to consider is buying pre-bagged produce. At Austin’s Sustainable Food Center’s markets, for instance, vendors prepackage items for customers, then put the container down, and let the customer pick up the bag. Likewise at New York City’s Greenmarkets, only producers and their staff may handle products until after a customer’s purchase is completed. For booths wishing to display items, Rutgers University researchers suggest that they should secure the produce available for sale in coolers or other protected areas. 

Additionally, many vendors are now requesting customers to use no-touch credit card payments or pay with exact change.

The Clean Team: Vendors have added responsibilities to protect the markets for COVID exposure. The State of Washington’s policies include frequent cleaning and disinfecting high-touch non-food contact surfaces (such as customer restrooms, doors, checkout counters, and payment touchpads) and designating a market worker to ensure these sanitization procedures are completed. Greenmarket, similarly, has instructed its markets to use easy-to-sanitize vinyl or plastic table covers, while the Sustainable Food Center has told its vendors not to use table cloths.

Safe At Home: After a successful farmers market trip, folks still need to stay in sanitizing-mode once they arrive home. A good routine is to wash your hands first and either discard non-reusable bags or clean the bags you brought to the market. Rinse and dry your fresh produce (unless the packaging states otherwise) before use; however, you don’t wash with soap or bleach. Remember to clean and sanitize your countertops, and then sit down to enjoy one of those crisp apples you brought home.

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