Covid, Farmers Markets, and City Hall
The pandemic of 2020 has wrought incomprehensible devastation and still it has been powerfully instructive. Intertwined with many threads of public health disparities, racial injustices, and abject failures of governance, we have also more widely exposed the critical frailties of the dominant, industrial food system. Just as employer-based medical insurance is a not a reliable or sufficient public health infrastructure to combat a pandemic when economic collapse eliminates that “benefit” to millions, we see crops plowed under, truckloads of dairy products dumped, and whole livestock herds preemptively slaughtered because household grocery shopping under lockdown conditions doesn’t “work” with supply chains (and even package sizes!) that singularly focus on restaurants and other shuttered food service outlets.
Many other, much better, writers have laid out the unprecedented scope and depth of these crises. Patient policy analyses of what is(n’t) in the Farm Bill, the CARES Act, and other huge structural obstacles must examine the problems that powerful interests have created in our nation’s food policies. The contours of the Covid era also show us how farmers markets fit into this puzzle. See, for example, this “Metro Covid Analysis” from the Brookings Institution and Project for Public Spaces.
My opinionated focus here is one super-local manifestation of this mess. That is, I want to emphasize the value of public street space and the City of Seattle’s reckless mistreatment of our farmers markets during the pandemic. The City was swift in the Spring 2020 lockdown to designate many miles of public streets as “Stay Healthy Streets,” for physically distanced walking, cycling, and car-free passive use. At the same time, the Mayor’s Office eliminated our access to healthy, local food at weekly farmers markets by revoking the ill-suited “Special Event” permits under which they operate. This haphazard policy response of “healthy streets” without healthy food access in safe, outdoor settings was punitive to the non-profit operators and small farmers we incubate, and at odds with the best practices abounding in other cities. More, the Governor’s own declaration of farmers markets as Essential Businesses was summarily ignored in Seattle, further penalizing urban residents and regional growers.
Weekly farmers markets in Seattle have reliably operated for 20+ years, often in the same in-street locations. As business incubators, sources of fresh, safe, and local food, and anchors to neighborhood business districts, they are anything but “Special Events.” But incoherent bureaucratic inertia and lack of visionary leadership at the City of Seattle have for too long forced various (overwhelmingly non-profit) operators no more stable, supportive, or reliable means to operate. And then came Covid!
By revoking the “Special Event” permits in March 2020, the Mayor and her staff capriciously
• Cost four markets operated by nonprofit NFM almost $1.4 Million in lost income to its farmers;
• Imposed crushing vendor limits, rather than grant more space for physical distancing (compare this to NYC greenmarkets);
• Imposed product limits and operating restrictions (Were 2/3 of supermarket shelves emptied or deemed off-limits? No!)
• Subjected market operators to weekly and last-minute micromanagement of market layouts, arbitrary staffing levels and deployment.
At this writing, some of the more egregious impositions have been partially relaxed. Many vendors have struggled to pivot, adjust, and/or abandoned the markets. Limited emergency financial resources from privately-raised NFM Resilience Grants have partly addressed some needs, taking the existing Good Farmer Fund to a whole new level. Operating reserves of market operators have been deeply depleted, and the fundamental model as nonprofit earned-income small business incubators has been profoundly wounded by simplistic and insensitive local government action.
The shutdowns, delays, operating limitations and long waiting lines imposed by the Mayor have exacted further social and public health costs. Reduced access to affordable, healthy food choices are being disproportionately borne by our most vulnerable and food-insecure. Thousands of our neighbors who regularly shop farmers markets with EBT/SNAP, SNAP Market Match, Fresh Bucks, and WIC/Senior FMNP have had their buying power and choices curtailed.
Adding insult to injury, the City of Seattle’s particular local policies and pandemic responses have benefitted industrial food whilst further endangering the economic viability of local farming. The City granted emergency relief grocery funds for exclusive use at Safeway stores, diverting locally-generated Sweetened Beverage Tax (SBT) funds and customers from local food producers and vendors to the industrial supermarket supply chain. To be perfectly clear, Safeway stores aren’t a safer shopping or working environment than outdoor, in-the-street farmers markets. Nonetheless, the City wrote thousands of dollars of Safeway vouchers, while shutting down the various food access multipliers at our farmers markets. And unlike outdoor farmer market vendors, supermarket workers have been exposed to elevated Covid risk but reap little of corporations’ huge pandemic windfall profits.
With these actions, Seattle’s local government actions during the Covid pandemic have chosen to favor the corporate food industry as “winners” at the expense of workers, small-scale farmers, and the outdoor shoppers of all kinds at famers markets—local folks who comprise the much safer local food supply chain. Sadly, it is a local echo of how the Federal Government invoked the National Defense Act only to demand factory slaughterhouses remain open as essential (despite them being major Covid super-spreader sites).
COVID laid bare the weaknesses in our greater food system but, together, we can build a bigger vision for a resilient food system that protects and promotes all of our farmers and neighbors. This is the time to sustain our network of neighborhood-based and neighborhood-driven farmers markets that bind the city and region together through local food.
– Neighborhood Farmers Markets
With stronger City policy support and smarter actions, our beloved farmers markets– as essential enterprises and vital civic infrastructure– can continue to provide safe and healthy food access. A first step in this needed course correction was achieved by the Farmers Markets of Seattle (FMoS) coalition in pushing legislation through the Seattle City Council in November 2020. With staffing provisions in the new budget and a Statement of Legislative Intent, City offices have been directed to conduct a thorough re-examination of how our markets are supported and permitted by the City. This work will also benefit from the recently completed Market Cities Initiative of Project for Public Spaces, which featured Seattle’s particular challenges and details many of the recommendations we are working to implement. Read more about Seattle’s work in the PPS Market Cities Initiative here.