This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.
The COVID-19 pandemic has posed many health challenges, but it's also made it easier than ever for Michiganders to get healthy, local food, as many farmers and farmers markets have begun offering their wares online for the first time.
According to Hailey Lamb, communications manager for the Michigan Farmers Market Association, 240 farmers markets across the state made pandemic adaptations, including introducing online or alternative sales platforms. Some markets, like Detroit's Eastern Market, offer the option of ordering on the farmers market website. Others, like Birmingham Farmers Market, list links to their vendors' individual web stores.
"Our market managers have been great at making decisions that work in the communities they serve," Lamb says. "Many markets are reporting that they are seeing many new shoppers and that people are shopping a little differently. They are tending to move through the market quicker and SNAP spending is higher. In general, most people are spending more at their market in general."
For the most part, customers pick up their orders curbside or through face-to-face interactions that are quicker — and safer — than in the past. Online orders from the Flint Farmers Market are picked up curbside at the market. And the Downtown Marquette Farmers Market offers a hybrid of online and in-person COVID-safe sales.
"Everyone involved in farmers markets realized that this pivot might need to be an option to safely get folks food," says Alex Palzewicz, local food sales manager for Taste the Local Difference (TLD), a Michigan local food marketing agency.
Online sales are doing more than keeping the state's farmers and growers financially solvent. Anecdotal accounts also suggest that Michiganders have been choosing to eat more locally-grown and -produced foods since the pandemic hit.
"When they learned that about 40% of people who died from Coronavirus had type 2 diabetes, people here started changing their diets because it made a difference to their ability to build immunity and reduce severity of the disease," says Dan Carmody, president of Eastern Market. "People got smarter about how to improve the nutritional density of their families' meals."
Eastern Market adds online options
Before the pandemic, Detroit's 125-year-old Eastern Market engaged 225 produce vendors serving up to 40,000 visitors at any given Saturday market. According to Carmody, COVID-19 cut both vendor and walk-in patron numbers in half. To keep those vendors in business, Eastern Market launched two web-based purchase options: a Saturday market food box pickup and a Tuesday market bulk-order drive-through.
For the food boxes, patrons order and pay Eastern Market online. Market staff procure the items from various vendors and pack the boxes for safe curbside pickup the following Saturday. Carmody says market staff were preparing 450 boxes weekly during Michigan's stay-home order, which has dropped to about 115 per week as people have returned somewhat to public life.Food boxes, ordered online and prepared for pickup at Eastern Market.
"As it gets colder, and there are more enclosed sheds, people may go back to preferring the curbside option," Carmody says.
For the Tuesday drive-through, patrons place bulk orders online with wholesale vendors, then pick up from five participating produce vendors, a bakery, and three meat vendors at the market. Over the winter slow season, Carmody and his staff will be evaluating Eastern Market's online sales presence and helping individual vendors develop their own websites so they can sell directly to market patrons. He believes online sales will continue post-COVID-19.
"Our wholesalers and retailers saw they could get slightly better margins, get a more diverse customer base, and be more sustainable," he says. "Our season slows down from November to March. We will have the time to work with our businesses and ask, 'What did we learn this year?'"
Tools and tech
Pivoting to online platforms in an instant was no easy task for Michigan's farms and farmers markets. TLD has assisted the Downtown Marquette Farmers Market, Sara Hardy Downtown Farmers Market in Traverse City, Leelanau Farmers Market, and Ypsi Area Online Market, among others, in transitioning to online sales. TLD's role varied with each project, from helping with onboarding and learning new platforms to instruction on hosting webinars and training vendors.
According to Palzewicz, who also is market manager of the U.P. Food Exchange Online Marketplace, online platforms have been a factor in increasing the number of CSA shares that farms sold this year.
"A lot of people in Michigan have tried a CSA for the first time this year," she says. "It's been great to see farms selling out of shares. That means the farmers get their money upfront, which we know is when they need the money."
A fifth-generation family farm in Zeeland, Michigan, Visser Farms sold more CSA shares this year than in years past. When COVID-19 hit, the farm also expanded its online presence to include market sales in Ada, Grand Haven, Grand Rapids, Holland, and Rockford. In spring 2020, the farm began taking online orders for "grab bags" filled with some of each fruit or vegetable that the farm had harvested that week. Farmer Shelby Visser, who manages the website, considers the transition to online orders a success.
"We had a little bit of an online presence from selling CSA shares online [in previous years] so we were not starting completely from scratch," Visser says. "I feel like it worked out really well for a lot of people."
Since changing to a different sales platform would have been costly, Visser continued using the Square site she had developed for the CSA. She tentatively plans on continuing the online store for farmers market patrons next year.
"I had talked to Taste the Local Difference about switching software to something specifically for farms, but we weren't sure how long [the pandemic] would go on and didn't want to spend all that money, so we ended up just using what we had," Visser says. "There are a lot of different software options and cool things for farmers specifically who want to have online stores."
Lessons learned, looking forward
As farmers and farmers markets moved online, one challenge has been inventory management. Previously, they simply sold until they sold out. Now, they have to find ways to realistically reflect what is on hand.
Another challenge is that many Michigan rural areas do not have reliable internet access. And on an individual level, people with income challenges may not have devices or Internet service to access their local farm or market's website. People using SNAP benefits for purchases face more obstacles. As online SNAP purchases are currently limited to a limited number of big-box stores, vendors must defer payment for online orders to when the customer picks up their food. In addition, many SNAP recipients are not aware that farms and farmers markets have created online purchase options for them. Eastern Market staff prepare food boxes that were ordered online.
However, given the successful pivot farmers and farmers markets have made so far, Carmody agrees with his colleagues that Michigan consumers can expect online options for buying fresh, local food to remain post-pandemic.
"I think the farm community is the least tech-savvy," Carmody says. "But as these tools are becoming increasingly easier to use, it's a way for these businesses to develop alternate markets and to make them more resilient to shocks like those that we had this year."
A freelance writer and editor, Estelle Slootmaker is happiest writing about social justice, wellness, and the arts. She is development news editor for Rapid Growth Media, communications manager for Our Kitchen Table, and chairs The Tree Amigos, City of Wyoming Tree Commission. Her finest accomplishment is her five amazing adult children. You can contact Estelle at Estelle.Slootmaker@gmail.com or www.constellations.biz.
Photos by Nick Hagen.