During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order called for the closure of all nonessential services in Virginia, farmers markets were forced to shut down — even though the markets might have supplied fresh, healthy food when the conventional food chain was not working.
“This created some challenges for markets on how to stay open. Many created online stores and pick-up-only programs,” Dorothy McIntyre, manager of the Forest Farmers Market, said, noting that by their very nature, outdoor farmers markets seemed like the perfect answer to what was happening.
Del. Scott Wyatt, R-Hanover, and nine co-patrons — including Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, and Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg — introduced a bill, HB 2302, for this General Assembly session to ensure farmers markets can stay open as essential businesses during states of emergency in which grocery stores also are considered essential.
The bill passed the House on Feb. 5, but Feb. 19 the Senate passed a similar substitute version of the bill, which means it must go back to the House for reconsideration. The General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn March 1.
Early in the pandemic, the Virginia Farmers Market Association quickly realized farmers markets were crucial.
“It was a difficult period trying to get farmers markets open,” said Kim Hutchinson, executive director of the Virginia Farmers Market Association. “At a time when there were empty grocery store shelves and Virginians clamoring for healthy local food, farmers and food producers had to scramble to reach customers because their primary sales outlets had been shut down.”
Byron said she loves to go to her local farmers market to obtain fresh, local produce.
“These establishments have become fixtures in our communities that are just as essential as grocery stores,” she said. “I support House Bill 2302, which would treat local farmers markets as essential businesses during states of emergency. This legislation will ensure Virginians can always purchase fresh, high-quality foods from our independent Virginia Farmers.”
Hutchinson said farmers markets provide vital food access. Customers using SNAP benefits can double their dollars to buy fresh produce at many markets.
“This is especially important now more than ever,” she said. “We went from 850,000 Virginians struggling weekly pre-COVID to an additional 446,000 becoming food-insecure during COVID.”
Ricky Kowalewski, market manager for the Lynchburg Community Market, said the initial statewide shutdown in March seriously upended operations. After those first few weeks, farmers markets were allowed to operate with many, often confusing or contradicting, restrictions, he said.
“This bill would allow farmers markets to operate and be viewed the same way as grocery stores in a pandemic in state leadership’s eyes,” he said. “We have been able to stay open through the pandemic, thanks to city leadership’s agreement with our recommendations, because we’ve got farmers and producers bringing food every week. Because of their hard work, the Lynchburg community had a place to get fresh, local food throughout the lockdowns.”