Nowadays, many of us in the U.S. have access to a farmers market — if not multiple markets — located conveniently within our communities. Farmers markets allow communities to support local farmers’ and ranchers’ businesses, and in return, farmers and ranchers directly supply communities with fresh, local food. But sometimes the true purpose and benefit of farmers markets can get lost behind the perception of farmers markets as fun, social events for the weekend — not much different than a local festival. But the fact is, farmers markets serve as invaluable components of a community’s food security and resilience, without which, communities could find themselves more vulnerable to food insecurity. The COVID-19 pandemic reminded many of us that local farmers markets and their vendors are food security lifelines.
One such food security lifeline is the Wilmington Farmers Market at Tidal Creek, North Carolina. The market started in 2018 as the first year-round, producer-only farmers market in the greater Wilmington area (meaning that all the food brought to market was grown or processed by the vendors themselves). The market is located next to the Tidal Creek Co-op, making it a popular local food shopping destination. Julie Svenson, the market manager for the past two years, says the market is very successful and has a good mix of customers, “from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, vegan and carnivore, from college students to retirees.”
From the very beginning, the Wilmington Farmers Market at Tidal Creek took steps to address food insecurity for all shoppers through acceptance of SNAP/EBT (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and the use of Fresh Bucks. Fresh Bucks is a program, supported through RAFI-USA funding, that allows SNAP shoppers to double their dollars at the market in order to buy more healthy, nutritious food for their families. Since the market started offering Fresh Bucks and SNAP/EBT in May 2019, it has doubled more than 500 SNAP customers’ purchases which resulted in significant additional sales for vendors.
COVID-19 Impact at the Farmers Market
The U.S. agricultural and food supply system is a delicate, time-sensitive machine. Even slight disturbances can cause wide-scale consequences of low inventory and high prices in retail stores. This occurs even though surplus food may be sitting unharvested in fields. The COVID-19 pandemic outbreak highlighted how these types of major catastrophes can have rippling effects on all aspects of food production: agricultural and food labor, harvesting, transportation, storage, and retail. The delicate, time-sensitive nature of our current food supply chain, while incredibly efficient under normal conditions, buckled under the uncertainty and revealed a very limited ability to adapt and pivot. Because of this, large corporate agribusinesses struggled to maintain a stable supply of food, thereby jeopardizing food security.
On March 30, 2020, Governor Roy Cooper of North Carolina issued an executive order that specifically named farmers markets as essential businesses that could remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic. For many farmers markets that were being asked to close, this directive gave them the go-ahead needed to get to work to make sure they could still feed their communities. In Wilmington, Julie and the vendors did get to work, assessing and adapting to the new public safety protocols. “We transformed into a drive-through farmers market when the lockdown began. We set up at Wrightsville Beach Brewery’s parking lot and created a one-entrance/one-exit line where cars pulled up next to vendors’ tents to shop.”
Along with the changes in market structure, Julie noted that tensions were higher in the early stages of the outbreak as people were unsure how the pandemic would impact their lives. This resulted in a huge increase in new customers who shopped at the market. Many customers expressed concern that they were nervous to shop inside grocery stores and saw the farmers market as a safer option. At the same time, grocery stores were experiencing low inventory in essential food items due to delayed shipping and panic purchasing. But within all that uncertainty, the Wilmington Farmers Market at Tidal Creek was able to step up for its community. “Our vendors were still out there, every week, with their tables piled high with fresh food. I believe customers noticed this as a more reliable way to shop, and started to view us as an important weekly outing for food.” As an additional unexpected benefit to the market, there was an increase in the number of vendors who wanted to sell at the drive-through farmers market at Wrightsville Beach Brewery.
Farmers Markets Addressing Food Insecurity
COVID-19 prompted a national spike in food insecurity levels due to increased unemployment as well as tightened food budgets, some resulting from children being out of school. According to Feeding America, 1 in 7 Americans and 1 in 5 children (11 million children) experienced food insecurity during 2020. And there were significant racial disparities when it came to which households experience food insecurity: 1 in 5 Black households versus 1 in 8 white households.
During 2020, Julie noticed a huge increase in parents and families who came to use their EBT and Pandemic-EBT cards and who were thrilled that they could get the most out of their purchases with the Fresh Bucks program. “We still see many of these families shopping with us,” she shared.
The Wilmington Farmers Market at Tidal Creek was not the only farmers market to experience an uptick in new customers using EBT and P-EBT cards in 2020. In March 2020, RAFI-USA began co-facilitating a call for North Carolina farmers market managers along with Carolina Farm Stewardship Association and NC State Extension. On the calls, market managers across the state reported record SNAP sales last summer. This was not only due to increased customer attendance. Market managers also observed that SNAP and P-EBT customers were spending more of their benefits at the market, with some families coming to purchase $50, $100, $200 worth of fresh, local food in one visit.
It was especially important to Julie that the farmers market was able to continue offering Fresh Bucks incentives during COVID-19 last year because there were many families that typically rely on school lunches for their kids. Because of Fresh Bucks and the reliable abundance of food the vendors brought each week, the farmers market served as an affordable option for families who were previously or newly experiencing food insecurity. And the farmers market sales reflect this increase in SNAP/P-EBT customers. From May 2020 to April 2021 the farmers market saw a 75% increase in SNAP customer transactions and an 81% increase in overall SNAP sales compared to the previous year.
The Wilmington Farmers Market at Tidal Creek is returning to a pre-pandemic normal. And although customers aren’t quite buying at the same level as when grocery stores were at their lowest inventory, vendors still report robust sales. SNAP and Fresh Bucks sales are on track to increase for the third year in a row.
Even with an optimistic outlook, Julie says farmers markets like in Wilmington need support from their communities now more than ever. “After seeing how reliable farmers markets have been throughout the pandemic, we should all want to support the farmers who were there for us, still providing healthy food for us all.”
She also reminds us that farmers markets are more than just places to purchase healthy, fresh, quality food. They are also places to learn about sustainability and where our food comes from. “This is not only important for the future of our planet, but for our community to grow and stay healthy, together.”