Although the shelves of area grocery stores might be bare, the fields of local farmers are full.
“This is the moment for local food systems,” said Heather Coiner with the Little Hat Creek Farm in Nelson County. “The local food supply is not as vulnerable. People connected to our farm don’t have to worry; we have plenty of food.”
But, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is complicating how farmers have typically sold their products — farmer’s markets are canceled and other buyers, such as restaurants and schools, have shut their doors. To help farmers, area organizations are working to fill the void through a new kind of farmer’s market and other strategies.
Little Hat Creek was one of five vendors that participated in a drive-thru farmer’s market Wednesday hosted by Local Food Hub, a Charlottesville nonprofit that partners with Virginia farmers to increase access to local food. About 143 people participated in the first market and bought $6,700 worth of goods from local producers. Bellair Farm, Caromont Farm, Radical Roots and The Pie Chest also participated.
“It’s important to support local farmers because they are the backbone of the local food system,” said Portia Boggs, director of advancement and communication for Local Food Hub. “…Like any small business, if we don’t support them, they could close down.”
Boggs said that small farms operate on narrow financial margins, so any disruption could have significant effects on their businesses.
Local Food Hub is expected to expand the drive-thru concept to other locations and involve more vendors.
Food can be purchased for next week’s market this weekend on the organization’s website. Then, on Wednesday, customers can go to Rivanna River Company from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. to pick up their orders.
This model adheres to social distancing guidelines developed to slow the spread of the virus by limiting physical contact among people.
“The COVID-19 pandemic presents urgent challenges for our food system,” said Kristen Suokko, executive director of Local Food Hub, in a news release. “Our staff is working hard to develop creative solutions such as these drive-through markets, and is pivoting other programming to mitigate impacts of the crisis on the neediest in our community.”
Beyond the market, Local Food Hub is coordinating with community organizations that are delivering meals to those in need in order to include more local food options in those meals in addition to the shelf-stable items.
“People also need fresh produce,” Boggs said.
For more information on Local Food Hub’s efforts during the pandemic, go to localfoodhub.org/covid/.
Coiner said the drive-thru market exceeded her expectations. The farm produces vegetables, eggs and bread and pastries, and this year, Coiner said they decided to just sell at farmer’s markets and focus on direct sales to customers. She’s still figuring out exactly what the pandemic will mean for the farm.
So far, customers are emailing orders, and the farm’s online store has been reopened. She said the farm has received many more inquiries about grains and flour than usual.
“People have more time to experiment with baking and breads,” she said.
The Common Grain Alliance, of which Coiner is chair, is working to connect individuals with local options for grains and flour. More information is available at commongrainalliance.org.
But, with those options and the drive-thru markets, Coiner is worried about the farm’s relationships to customers. She wants folks to feel connected to their farmer and not like they are picking up another bag of groceries.
“How do we manage to give them a little bit of joy and delight along with their bread and vegetables?” she said. “… I feel optimistic that we are going to get through it and weather the storm.”