5 Lessons from 2020 – Food TankJanuary 10, 2021
Our food system has taken hits from COVID-19. You’ve read about it, maybe felt it firsthand. Endless food pantry lines, scrambles to feed kids out of school, and supply chain disruptions for farms and food retail alike. A shuttered restaurant industry. Supermarkets facing food shortages, suppliers figuring out their pivots, farms forced to discard food. Our food system has shown its fragility, but also revealed opportunities toward resilience and values-based food work. We’ve seen a surge in local food interest, renewed focus on regional food systems, and critical conversations on equity.
One bright spot from 2020 is the growth of direct-to-consumer local food demand, the very stuff of farm-to-table. Even pre-pandemic, farms selling directly through farmers markets, CSA programs, or farm stands were more likely to stay in business.
Now the pandemic has moved farmers markets even closer to the forefront. After early shocks, safety-conscious customers flocked to outdoor farmers markets. In the months since, markets have provided a lifeline for farmer sales, and have met new demand for local food with innovative programs.
As conventional food supply chains have stabilized, will these new local customers be kept? If local food systems can hold these new customers, will our overall food system be better prepared for the next crisis?
Farmers markets are key in these farm-direct customer relationships and in food system resilience. While not the largest sector in food system economies, they still bring over US$2.4 billion in sales to farms annually. They provide a physical face for food access, crucial space for smaller, newer farms to connect directly to the public, and a vital platform for nimble, innovative responses to food system challenges.
The future of our food system depends on what we can learn from 2020.
At Community Food Lab, we conducted a study of farmers markets in North Carolina over the summer. Our findings largely aligned with national trends: while seeing fewer casual visitors, market sales have increased overall. Farmers markets are proving their vital role in connecting farmers and consumers as other supply chains are disrupted.
We also found through our research that farmers markets are missing out on the Black community. A truly resilient and sustainable farmers market system will include all farmers, and access for all consumers.
As we look forward, we see the following lessons for resilient farmers markets:
1. See farmers markets as system builders
Farmers markets naturally connect resources and needs around local farm economies, community relationships, and healthy food access—all on the upswing in 2020. As connectors, farmers markets are facilitating virtual sales and food access measures with farmers and communities, becoming virtual or real food hubs and sales multipliers. As anchors in local food systems, farmers markets can catalyze resilience through engagement, networks, and smart…