By Natalie Pax, 2020 Food Access Assistant and Allegheny Mountain Institute Phase II Fellow
“We can begin by doing small things at the local level, like planting community gardens or looking out for our neighbors. That is how change takes place in living systems, not from above but from within, from many local actions occurring simultaneously. “ –Grace Lee Boggs
The essence of a farmer’s market is the cultivation of community. While it may be a place where economic transactions occur, it is also a place for connection—to a local economy, to nourishing food, and to each other. Despite the very different nature of farmer’s markets this year as a result of Covid-19, I firmly believe that markets are essential places for folks in the community to access fresh, local products and connect with fellow community members—in a safe and socially distanced way, of course!
Both the Waynesboro and North Augusta markets went through a lot of changes and transitions throughout the unique and challenging 2020 season. When the pandemic hit in March, it was unclear what the future of the markets would look like for the season. However, I am so proud to say that despite all of the challenges this year has brought, our markets have persisted, and in many ways, the pandemic has illuminated how essential and important farmer’s markets are for community access to healthy, fresh, and local food and other products.
At the beginning of the season, we couldn’t operate our markets in the usual in-person format. With the help of Virginia Farmer’s Market Association (VAFMA) and a lot of collaboration as a team, we opened our season with an online order and drive-through pickup format, providing a contact-less and safe avenue for community members to purchase products from our vendors and receive their items the day of the market without even leaving their car. While this was indeed not the type of market I had envisioned and originally planned for, I know that customers and vendors alike were thankful to have a safe way to access and distribute fresh food. Meeting every Wednesday and Saturday morning at the market locations and greeting vendors as they dropped off their items to be bagged ended up being the highlight of my weeks, despite the cold weather in the early spring! We received so much great feedback from our customers about how much the drive-through system of the markets was appreciated, especially at a time when many restaurants were closed and some folks were minimizing their visits to grocery stores.
Luckily, in mid-summer we were able to transition the markets to in-person shopping in addition to the online and drive-thru format, expanding the ways in which market customers could shop and purchase products at our markets while still ensuring a safe environment. Many customers were so excited to shop in-person at the market and greet the vendors behind all of the delicious and nutritious food. However, many were also thankful we continued to provide an online ordering option as they did not feel comfortable shopping in-person.
The interactions with vendors, customers, and the random passersby during the markets illuminated the power of connection and community, especially at a time when many feel distant and isolated. With the help of wonderful volunteers, Project GROWS staff, and interns, we were able to build the markets over the course of the season and celebrate many successes despite the hardships this year has brought.
Here are just a few of the successes we want to celebrate from the 2020 market season:
- We donated over 369 pounds of produce to local shelters and pantries in the community through our Fresh Food Donation Program. Many thanks to the customers and vendors who contributed to this!
- We increased SNAP sales by 80% this year at the Waynesboro Farmer’s Market
- With the help of volunteers from the Staunton-Augusta Health Department, we were able to offer the issuing of WIC (Women, Infant, and Children) farmer’s market checks as well as provide personal assistance with shopping at the Waynesboro market location
I am so appreciative and thankful that I got to be a part of the Project GROWS farmer’s markets this year and witness firsthand the power of community and a localized food economy. Thank you to all those who continue to support Project GROWS food access programs and the producers at our markets. Stay tuned for information about the North Augusta and Waynesboro farmer’s markets for the 2021 season!