By Katherine Liverman
A little creativity gave the City of Falls Church’s Farmers Market some reprieve from the capacity restrictions and now allows the weekly event outside City Hall to function as a “To-Go Market” — a change met with a mix of enthusiasm and apprehension.
At the new, temporary format’s pilot this past Saturday, Black Rock Orchard’s Emily Zaas, a fixture at the Falls Church market for 25 years, said that “customers showed overwhelming support.” The vendor said she received so many pre-orders she had to cut them off before the day-of to meet demand.
At the market since 2005, Mary Ellen Taylor of Endless Summer Harvest, better known as “The Lettuce Lady,” reported a similar experience. She sees her relationship with Falls Church customers as symbiotic, and saw this shine through in “how grateful every single customer was that we were there and taking special orders.”
Last Saturday, the market had two entry points and was limited to 10 patrons inside at a time. The lines never exceeded six people nor was anyone made to wait longer than three minutes to enter. And in the spirit of social distancing, there were always six feet between those in line. At least two vendors had around 100 preorders. One vendor was not even staffed, instead customers simply picked up the bag with their assigned number.
Looking forward, Herman is preparing for the 50-vendor summer market; one that makes last Saturday’s eight-vendor version look like a walk in the park. The status of the to-go market is evolving and City officials will release updates on possible changes in the future.
It’s a far cry from where the market was barely a week ago. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s state of emergency declaration on March 16, when he put limits on gatherings to 10 people or less at restaurants, influenced the City to shut down the year-round market for a week.
There is no evidence that food is a transmission route for the virus. However, social distancing and self-quarantine measures have become critical to slow the spread of the virus and maintain the capacity of hospitals to care for the sick.
Because of this, only stores deemed as providing necessities remain open to the public without patron entry restrictions; namely supermarkets and pharmacies. The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services grouped farmers markets with restaurants, resulting in the suspension of the Falls Church market.
Many local farmers and vendors were not quick to accept the initial suspension. After the restriction was ordered on March 20, the Virginia Farmers Market Association released two letters. The first was directed at farmers and patrons regarding safe market practices; the second was sent to Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bettina Ring. The latter was an urgent plea to keep Virginia farmer’s markets open for the sake of family farms.
With well over 300 signatures, it urged Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) to “take swift action by issuing a statement affirming the essential role Virginia’s Farmers Markets play for Virginia’s farmers, economy, and communities across the State, and affirmatively equate Virginia’s Farmers Markets with grocery stores and other retail outlets for the purposes of COVID19 containment policies.”
Not only did it advocate to equate farmers markets with grocery stores, but it also put forth several reasons as to why farmers markets may be the safer option over a trip to the grocery store:
• A shortened supply chain means that food passes through far fewer hands than other retail outlets;
• Markets are open-air with space to move away from people if needed;
• Market trips are brief… and average shopper outings at the market average around 20-30 minutes;
• Farmers market booths are non-permanent, so products are not constantly being touched seven days/week, and can be wiped down regularly by vendors.
Between the pressure of Falls Church vendors and the duties of City officials was Howard Herman, the manager of the City’s market.
Herman fights on no particular side. He is a clear advocate for the farmers market, valuing the deep importance of farm to table. “I don’t think you can downplay that, I think that’s a critical role the market plays.” But at the same time, he understands the role of officials and the pressure they are under to impose the restrictions.
“It’s not easy…they’re all trying to make a living, just like everyone who is impacted.”
Zaas, who was devastated by the closure two weeks ago, believed the market should stay open as a safer food option for customers.
“Falls Church customers are so loyal that even in years that we lose the peach crop to early frosts, they support us by buying more apples, instead,” Zaas said. “They care about buying fruit directly from the farmers, they care about how the fruit is produced, and they don’t care if it doesn’t look perfect.”
Like many others, Zaas wants the farmers market to be recognized by the City as a necessary source of fresh local produce for the Falls Church community. “That is something that should not only be important in good times but also especially now,” she said.
Herman’s respect for the value of the market to both vendors and customers is clear. However, he thought the suspension was a necessary time to figure out how to keep the market open while keeping people safe.
Although the to-go model was not his initial move, Herman believes it is the best model that could have come out of the negotiations, and it also happened to go swimmingly.
But not everyone is jumping back to their spot in the market just yet.
Amidst the negative effects of Covid-19 on the food industry, several Falls Church vendors ventured on a different route than pushing to reopen the market.
The Virginia Food Cottage Laws detail the foods and products individuals can produce and sell from their homes without VDACS inspections. This includes foods like dried fruits, herbs, pasta, and acidified sauces like Forbes’.
However, in a time where people are reluctant to visit homes, the laws do not clearly state other venues where a vendor can sell directly. In response, Dave Forbes, founder of Disturbingly Delicious Foods and a vendor at the market since 2017, emailed Governor Northam’s office with a proposition:
“I propose these venues be articulated so that they are legitimate. Most obvious would be allowing the producer to engage in-home delivery. Another would be allowing the producer to be physically present at a specific location for a period of time (a ‘pop up’) to allow for pick up by consumers.”
Because Forbes owns a local shop, he will not be participating in the new to-go market.
Fresh Crunch Food founder Matt Bressan, a vendor at the Falls Church market since 2009, took a different approach.
In response to the initial suspension, Bressan, who has not registered for the new market, launched “Community Crunch,” a meal delivery service that brings food to your door with minimal contact — according to his website, “You don’t even have to open the door.”
The program supports other vendors in the area by purchasing their products for use as meal ingredients. More information on Community Crunch is available at freshcrunchfood.com.
With 17 registered vendors as of press time, Falls Church’s market will be back in action this Saturday, from 8 a.m. – noon, in front of City Hall. Information on pre-ordering is available at www.fallschurchva.gov/547/Farmers-Market-To-Go.