Farmers’ Market Contactless “Box Programs” Popping up in Response to COVID-19

Since late 2019, the Ecology Center has been working on a national level to share our expertise in operating nutrition incentive programs in farm direct settings (farmers’ markets, farm stands and Community Supported Agriculture box programs.) Nutrition incentive programs match federal benefits like SNAP/CalFresh (formerly known as food stamps) at farmers’ markets and other farm-direct outlets, by doubling the buying power of low-income families and individuals. The Ecology Center leads Market Match, California’s 10+ year old nutrition incentive program, serving thousands of farmers and hundreds of thousands of customers.

The Nutrition Incentive Hub, funded through a cooperative agreement from the United States Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, is a new national resource that provides training, technical assistance, reporting, and evaluation for those working to launch or expand SNAP incentives or produce prescription programs.

As a proud partner of the Nutrition Incentive Hub, the Ecology Center in collaboration with the Farmers’ Market Coalition,recently facilitated a webinar on “Box programs” or contactless curbside/drive-thru models at farmers’ markets that have been popping up as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The webinar was held on September 3rd and was a success! 100 viewers were present on the zoom webinar and over 500 viewers watched from the Facebook live stream. Four farmers’ market leaders from across the country shared their curbside/drive-thru models, created as a result of COVID-19, while also navigating payment using SNAP/EBT and nutrition incentives.

It’s evident that COVID-19 has impacted almost every aspect of farmers’ market operations. From wearing masks to social distancing, keeping shoppers and vendors safe has created new opportunities for innovation. Largely due to the pandemic, farmers’ market customers – including those in COVID-19 high-risk groups – have been looking for lower-touch options. The speakers shared how their models provide customers with a more “contactless” shopping experience, while also providing small and mid-sized farmers with an additional opportunity to sell their products. These programs also, continue to elevate farmers’ markets and make healthy food accessible to communities.

Here’s what the speakers had to say about why these “box programs” are totally worth it:

Visalia Farmers Market Association  — Fresh Farm Box (Visalia, CA)

Angie Warkentin , Manager

Angie was inspired to start the Farm Fresh Box program to keep the community safe and mitigate sales loss. Public health was the top priority as they pivoted to keep their community fed.

“Farm Fresh Box program was a direct response to COVID-19. The grocery stores in our area had empty shelves while our farmers were having to dump produce they were not allowed to sell. A contactless drive-thru was written into our health and safety plan to reopen.”

Rochester Farmers Market – Online Market (Rochester, NM)

Ruth Arhleger , Market Manager

Ruth knew that to connect the community to produce, the market would need to embrace technology as a tool. Online Market was developed to offer an online purchasing option and increase accessibility during the pandemic, and to last afterward as well. 

“Online Market allows the segment of the population who would not normally shop at a market to participate in fresh, local food in a way grocery chains cannot provide. Additionally Online Market allows access for those who are unable to get to the market, providing access to those who need it most,” Arhleger said. “The internet is here to stay and we should be leveraging all the tools we can to help our farmers and our community succeed.”

North Coast Growers Association – Harvest Box (Arcata, CA)

Megan Kenney, Harvest Box Program Coordinator

Megan is part of a team running a successful harvest box program in Arcata, California. Her biggest tool for success? The strength of the Arcata community.

“One of my favorite and most surprising outcomes from our Harvest Box program is the large number of community partners who have stepped up to place bulk box orders for the clients they serve — like low income families and seniors, new mothers, and the houseless community,” says Kenney. “I hope that this type of collaboration can continue beyond the pandemic.” 

Cristina Berthelot, Market Manager

New Orleans, LA

Building a resilient community has motivated Cristina to implement the market’s new home delivery box and drive-thru model despite extra logistics and steps.

“Our markets bridge the gap between farmers and food producers to the consumers in and around New Orleans which is vital to the environment and our local economy,” says Berthelot. “We never said these transitions were going to be easy, but we did say we were going to make the safety of our community our top priority.”

Want to learn more from these experienced farmers’ market leaders? 

Watch the recording of the September 3rd webinar Thinking Inside the Box – Making Healthy Food Accessible with Curbside/Drive-Thru (Contactless) Models at Farmers Markets During COVID-19. They shared their challenges, successes, advice, insight into the logistical aspects of these programs, and tips on how you can implement alternative models at your market.