The ups and downs of 2020 have affected us all differently, but one thing we have in common is the daily task of eating. Being able to access food was one of the early concerns that many people shared, and that need continues along with the pandemic.
Throughout it all, farmers and local food producers have been steadfast in their commitment to feed their communities. In order to put this year in context, I caught up with Molly Nicholie, the program director of ASAP’s Local Food Campaign.
“2020 has been a year of constant change and adaptation for farmers and customers and communities,” she says. “It’s interesting to think back to a year ago, people were making a plan for what they wanted to do that’s new and innovative for their farm or their local food business. So a lot of that was already in place for the season when the pandemic hit in March.”
Of course, many of those plans were set aside as farmers and local food producers saw the needs of the community change from week to week. “There was a scramble at the beginning of the season just to say ‘How are my customers going to find me if I’m not in the normal places?’”
Many farmers already had spring crops in the ground, or plans in place for their livestock. Finding a way to get their products to customers was paramount, especially as farmers markets were delayed or changed locations.
Some farms offered delivery or set up contactless pick up in parking lots. New farm stands opened along with online stores, and CSAs sold out quickly. Some farms increased their social media posts and sent more newsletters to keep customers informed.
“Those folks that went into the season with strong ways to stay connected despite the pandemic were those that were able to shift a little bit more effectively,” she says.
Farmers who primarily sold to restaurants or schools had to change their business models in a matter of weeks, and some had surplus produce that they needed to sell in order to keep their farms going.
“Of course, we were also simultaneously seeing this huge increase in need for food in our community, that food insecurity skyrocketed in our region as people were out of work. So we were able to develop the Appalachian Farms Feeding Families program where we were able to buy products from farms to get out to the community through food relief agencies. So that was a really important initiative through the summer to both ensure farmers didn’t have to donate their product at a loss, were able to maintain a level of sales, but also make those connections through the summer months to feed folks in their community,” she says.
ASAP also expanded a Double SNAP program at farmers markets. For example, people with EBT cards can swipe $20 on their card and receive $40 to spend on food at the market. The 2020 goal was to double $100,000 of SNAP at farmers markets to provide fresh food to shoppers while supporting farmers and farmers markets.
“That Double SNAP initiative expanding over the summer was critical, both from a food access community perspective, but also from a farmer perspective to see that increase in sales at their farmers market booth. It felt like the farmer’s markets were expanding and connecting with segments of the community that they hadn’t been able to reach before,” she says.
As fall rolled in, people continued to turn to local food for comfort and a sense of normalcy. Socially-distanced agritourism was a popular choice for people who wanted to get outside with their families or pods. Apple orchards, pumpkin patches, and Christmas tree farms adapted their protocol and experienced an increase in visitors who wanted to support their local farms.
“Community support is more important than ever. Relying on each other to work through some of these challenges, whether it be access to fresh local food or supporting local businesses, that reliance on community connections and supporting each other through this pandemic has been the biggest lesson learned for the season,” she says.
There’s no crystal ball to reveal what 2021 has in store for us, but Molly has some advice for people who want to see local food thrive next year.
“The need for community support of each other right now is so critical, so staying connected and being really deliberate about that is crucial through the winter and into the spring.”
Find farmers markets that are open all winter and other ways to connect with farms in your community at www.asapconnections.org
Aired: December 21, 2020