Farmers markets have long filled cravings for fellowship as much as for fruit. But the social aspect of these weekly markets will take a backseat to health this spring as organizers try to keep them safe.
“Until it is safe to congregate again, we will be treating the [61st Street] Market like a grocery store and not a community event,” said Connie Spreen, the co-owner of Experimental Station in Woodlawn, which hosts the Saturday 61st Street Market.
Like other Chicago farmers market organizers, Spreen is waiting for word from city officials about when she can open her outdoor market, tentatively scheduled for May 16. Officials at the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events said in a statement that they’re still deciding.
“Plans for summer programming and events remain under discussion … our department and the city team will continue to work closely with our partners at the State to adopt protocols based on the information we receive and the guidance of health experts,” according to the statement.
Others awaiting approval for their scheduled May openings include Logan Square, Daley Plaza and Oak Park farmers markets and the Green City Market in Lincoln Park. But Evanston officials say they will open their popular downtown farmers market next week, on May 2 as scheduled. This will make it a closely watched test case for other area markets that serve hundreds of thousands of shoppers each season.
“Farmers markets are considered essential businesses under [Gov. JB Pritzker’s] order,” noted Lawrence Hemingway who heads Evanston’s Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees the township’s markets. “But we are going to do it in a safe manner to protect both the farmers as well as the residents who are planning to come to the market.”
So Hemingway has developed a set of strict rules that will include:
Masks for customers will be strongly encouraged. Vendors will be required to wear masks and gloves.
Traffic control. Shoppers will follow a prescribed path along the market’s new rectangular perimeter in one direction. There will also be limits on the number of people who can visit a stand at one time.
No touching the produce. “They will point to produce, and we will allow farmers to handle the produce on behalf of the residents,” Hemingway said.
No direct exchange of money. “There will be no hand-to-hand exchanges,” Hemingway added. “Customers will put their money on the table, the farmer will pick it up and then make the change, and place that on the table. Then the customer will pick that up. We’re in different times.”
No bagging of food, either. “The farmer will put the produce in a bag, and then those bags can be placed into reusable bags people bring,” he said.
Pre-ordering and online payment will be encouraged. “Then they can just kind of come to the market, pick it up and move on to reduce the number of people congregating in that one place,” he said.
Hemingway shaped the rules with guidance from local, state and national authorities. But he said, “Every day we are tweaking and refining and communicating more with our farmers to make sure everybody is on the same page.”
In addition to safety concerns, access could be an issue. Spreen and other market organizers who serve low-income populations are working to make sure SNAP recipients can still safely use their food dollars for market produce. Last year SNAP recipients spent $445,000 at Chicago farmers markets. This included the double value matching funds they can redeem at several local farmers market locations. But Spreen is worried that federal restrictions on SNAP will prevent beneficiaries from using the safer online pre-ordering option, especially since many already fall into groups at higher risk for contracting and dying from COVID-19.
“[So], if they want food, they have no choice but to go out to a grocery store, risking greater exposure to the coronavirus for themselves and their families,” Spreen noted in an email. “If there were any argument that the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] needed to expand the acceptance of SNAP to online purchases of food, the coronavirus pandemic has provided it.”
Currently SNAP recipients in only six states can use their benefits for online food purchases; Illinois is not one of those states.
Still, Spreen said she and others are lobbying the USDA to expand that access. She is also working to find a safer local work around that could allow users to pre-order with their SNAP benefits — called Link in Illinois — and receive matching credits.
“Like any responsible grocery store, we will require social distancing of everyone, and we will wear gloves and masks and encourage our customers to do so as well,” she wrote. “However, to facilitate their transactions, we are also considering ways to enable our Link customers to pre-order from farmers online and pay at pick up with our Market’s Link and Link Match vouchers. It is a moment that calls for invention!”
If the city drags its feet on granting permits for use of the public way, this invention may also require moving markets to new temporary locations on private property. Spreen is considering that option, as is Jessica Wobbekind, who leads the Logan Square Farmers Market, scheduled to open Sunday, May 10.
“Right now we are not exactly sure when we will start,” Wobbekind said. “But we are looking into all of our options — including having it on a private lot. But we hope to be up and running soon with a new plan of operations in place for safety.”
In the meantime, you can expect plenty of farmers market managers to visit Evanston’s event to see how it works in a time of social distancing. Hemingway knows the new rules will be hard for some to follow.
“But,” he said, “we need the community to be patient and think about the times we are living in now.”
Monica Eng is a reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her @MonicaEng.