Many of us have changed our food buying habits over the last few months: how often, where, and what kinds of food we buy. While it’s too early to tell what the long-term impacts will be, the pandemic has already had mixed effects on our local food system. Many farmers and ranchers who depend on sales to restaurants have been hit hard by restaurant closures. On the other hand, several CSAs have had to close registrations temporarily due to a huge spike in demand.
How Has COVID-19 Affected SFC Farmers’ Markets?
By Mia Burger and Simone Benz
Putting the Data in Context
March through June are usually top sales months for vendors at our local farmers’ markets—it’s not yet too hot for folks to enjoy being outside and, thanks to our mild winters, there’s already an amazing variety of fresh produce available. How did the pandemic affect this normally fruitful 4-month period? To answer this question, we looked at sales numbers and the number of vendors selling at each market to compare March-June 2020 to March-June 2019.
Note that when we mention vendor categories below, these are the categories we’re referring to: agricultural (farmers and ranchers) and non-agricultural (artisans and value-added vendors, which include those selling prepared foods).
Farmers’ Market Sales Stayed About the Same Overall
When we put in place new social distancing and other safety guidelines, our farmers’ markets transformed from destinations for a leisurely shopping trip to places to get fresh food as quickly and with as little contact as possible.
Given these changes, we were surprised to find that sales were about the same as last year. To be exact, sales were up 0.1% this year over March-June 2019.
However, these overall numbers don’t tell the whole story. Many market days had lower sales than last year, and sales varied greatly depending on the market and vendor category. While the overall picture looks positive in terms of total sales, we can see the fluctuations between months in the graph below. These ups and downs can make planning a challenge for vendors, who harvest and pack for each market based on their anticipated sales.
Fewer Vendors are at Market Each Week
The number of vendors selling at markets dropped by nearly one-third when comparing March-June 2020 with March-June 2019. Due to COVID restrictions, the market vendor base was reduced to “essential” businesses, namely, farmers and ranchers. Prepared food and artisan vendors were not setting up at the market during this time, to maintain social distancing and to keep the market as an outlet for essential items. With fewer vendors at market and roughly the same total sales, average sales per vendor increased. Again, this varied greatly by market and by vendor category.
There are several explanations for lower vendor attendance. Vendors have had to adapt quickly to a new reality that continues to change almost daily, and some have weighed the risks and chosen to sell their goods through other outlets for the time being. This includes offering preorders that customers can pick up on-farm. Social distancing on farms among field workers and packing crew, along with making sure that anyone who may have been exposed to the virus or doesn’t feel well stays home, makes everyday farm tasks more labor- and time-intensive. These added challenges may affect a vendor’s capacity to sell at the market.
Farmers and Ranchers Hold a Larger Percentage of Sales
Although March-June sales stayed about the same in both years and farmers and ranchers accounted for a greater percentage of total vendors at market this year, this doesn’t fully explain the jump in the share of total sales going to farmers and ranchers, shown in the charts below. This supports trends we’re seeing at the national level showing that households are spending more on food prepared at home.
Food Access Programs: Sales Trends
We also compared Food Access sales during the same period. These encompass sales from SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps), WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children), and FMNP (Farmers Market Nutrition Program, a seasonal benefit available to WIC recipients). SNAP benefits are accepted at our farmers’ markets, as well as other area farmers’ markets, Fresh for Less Mobile Markets, and partner sites throughout Austin. Benefit amounts are doubled through our Double Up Food Bucks (DUFB) program. Overall, food access sales have been lower so far this year, but the pivots to our programs are showing a promising shift upward. Let’s take a closer look at the data.
SNAP Sales Have Increased
We have seen a significant increase in SNAP sales during the months of March-June 2020, compared to the same months in the year prior. Market shoppers may feel safer in the open-air environment that a farmers’ market offers, especially with the safety protocols that have been put in place, and the friendliness with which they are greeted at the market. Yolanda, an Associate at the DUFB booth and an advocate for health, agrees: “I can recognize that sometimes clients might be feeling stressed, so I’m always ready with a welcoming attitude and friendliness. I also sense that our clients are grateful that our markets are open and accept SNAP benefits. I can tell because they happily say ‘Bye!’ ”
SNAP sales have also increased because more families were receiving benefits. Due to school closures from COVID-19, Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) was offered to all families with children up to 21 years old who previously received free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program at school. These benefits were also matched dollar for dollar with DUFB. Yolanda confirmed this, sharing that, “At the DUFB booth, we are indeed seeing an increase in families with young children, particularly school-age children (P-EBT) who have not used SNAP benefits before.”
In the graph below, we can see that SNAP sales were higher across all four months.
WIC and FMNP Sales Were Lower than Usual
Data from WIC and FMNP (Farmers Market Nutrition Program, a seasonal benefit available to WIC recipients) shows lower sales during this 4-month period. The FMNP season usually runs from March through September, and this is usually the busiest season for us at the markets. Families come to SFC farmers’ markets and receive $30 in vouchers per child for the purchase of fruits and vegetables. This amount is also doubled through DUFB.
Because the WIC program serves some of the most vulnerable in our community, SFC pivoted this program significantly to reduce the amount of time these families were spending in public, shifting to a mostly online or over-the-phone process. To provide additional support to our food access customers, we also launched a help desk phone number that families can call Monday-Saturday with any questions about the process. Even though we launched the program in early June rather than March, we are starting to see the gap closing, and total food access sales are beginning to rise.
Food Access Customers Came from a Smaller Geographic Area
Fewer individuals were coming to the markets during this time. There were half as many distinct Central Texas Food Access customers in 2020 as in 2019, and they traveled from 39 zip codes instead of 65. These zip codes were also more concentrated in Travis County in 2020: only June saw customers from all five counties in the Austin MSA (Bastrop, Caldwell, Hays, Travis, and Williamson), while in 2019, every month March-June had customers from these five counties. This was most likely due to reduced travel overall during the pandemic.
The top two zip codes stayed the same in both years, however: 78745 and 78744. Together, these accounted for 21% of Food Access transactions in 2019 and 33% in 2020. The maps below show the reduced geographic area represented by our Food Access customers in March-June 2020.
Feeding Texas estimates that food insecurity has doubled among Texas families since mid-March. SFC is working hard to make sure that our programs are accessible to households who are disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
- Despite fewer vendors at the market, sales have remained at similar levels compared to last year
- Shoppers are spending more on products from farmers and ranchers, but businesses selling items deemed “non-essential,” such as artisans, have not been selling at markets and have therefore not benefitted from these sales
- SNAP sales are higher than last year
- WIC and FMNP sales got a slower start because of the delayed launch of FMNP, but are catching up
- SFC Farmers’ Markets have remained safe and vibrant places for people to access fresh, local food directly from their source
We will continue to keep a close eye on how sales, vendor attendance, and visitor numbers change during the coming months and how we can best support the vendors in our network, as well as the community of shoppers we serve. There are several options for supporting these local producers and helping our local food system become more resilient.
- Shop at our farmers’ markets every Saturday from 9am-1pm. Prepared food and artisan vendors are returning to the markets; we are hopeful for an increase in their business
- Check out our list of Food Access Resources in Central Texas during COVID-19 for an updated list of vendors you can preorder from and pick up at our markets, as well as CSAs, farm stands, and more places to buy local.
- Find a participating restaurant near you to buy a local produce box or grocery items from our Neighborhood Pop-Up Grocery project
- Donate to SFC and support our local farmers and food access for Central Texas families