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Farmers markets adopt new methods during pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and New York State issued its first guidelines on social distancing, farmers markets were among the many businesses that closed down.

A worker connected to Flour City Bread moves to close a car trunk after depositing a box of prepaid locally produced groceries. (RBJ Photo by Diana Louise Carter)
A worker connected to Flour City Bread moves to close a car trunk after depositing a box of prepaid locally produced groceries. (RBJ Photo by Diana Louise Carter)

The seasonal markets that haven’t opened yet for the year, meanwhile, have been contemplating how to go forward and whether to open on schedule. A number of markets have posted lists of participating farms on their webpages or social media sites so customers could make arrangements to buy food directly from the producers.

The Rochester City Public Market continued to operate even as other city departments and series were closed down, taking care to space people and booths out, offer more ventilation for its indoor vendors and add more regular cleaning of high-touch surfaces.

After that initial reaction, New York’s Empire State Development has ruled that farmers markets and farm stands are essential businesses after all, so they may continue to operate with some restrictions.

New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets followed up with guidelines for operating safely. They include holding produce back so people can’t touch it, bagging food as much as possible, curtailing any sales of non-food items except for soap, and eliminating any music or other forms of entertainment that might cause people to hang around the market longer than they need to complete their shopping.

“Right now it’s not a social gathering as some may know it to be,” said Brian Howell, owner of Howell Farm on Saltonstall Street in Canandaigua and the market manager for the Canandaigua Farmers Market.

Howell said that there are regular customers who tend to make the market their Saturday morning gathering, but that’s highly discouraged right now.

The Canandaigua market, which operates alternating Saturdays in the winter, closed two weeks ago, but expects to open again this Saturday after adopting new social distancing methods— spacing out vendors, providing hand sanitizer and other precautions such as removing table cloths so surfaces can be wiped down regularly.

“It’s going to be an evolving plan all year to move forward in a safe manner,” Howell said.

The participating producers—about 10 in the winter and up to 35 in the warmer months—expect to be move to their summer location on Mill Street in early June, when they’ll be open every Saturday again. Howell said they may take additional measures at that location, as crowds might be larger.

The Brighton Farmers Market wasn’t quite so quick to get up and running again and isn’t ready to commit to its usual summer opening on Mother’s Day—May 10 this year. The town closed its indoor winter market located in the Brookside School when restrictions on gatherings went into effect in March.

“Our winter market is bigger than most communities’ summer markets,” said town supervisor Bill Moehle.

But its setting, in the gym of a former elementary school, was impossible to continue using with new social distancing guidelines. The building is also closed for now.

Moehle said the indoor setting will not reopen before the market switches to its summer location, date still to be decided, in the parking lot of Brighton High School.

“We certainly know farmers markets are an important part of the food network for people,” Moehle said.

With approximately 50 vendors at its outdoor location, the Brighton market is the second-largest in the county.

The market will follow the state’s new guidelines, Moehle said, adding, “Because we’re so big and so popular we have to go a step beyond to protect the vendors’ safety and the public’s safety.”

The market manager and market committee, along with town officials, are pondering some sweeping changes that are taking a while to coordinate.

Brighton is considering limiting attendees by age and number. Normally operating from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sundays, the town may save the first hour for people over 60 years old, and then assign people to other hours based on the first letter of their last names.

The market may not take cash anymore and customers may just come to pick up food they’ve already selected and paid for.

“Food wouldn’t be out on display (allowing people to) touch them the way they can now,” Moehle said. “We don’t anticipate money changing hands on the spot. It’s really important that at least under current conditions that customers pre-pay for pre-ordered items.”

The market has used a popular system allowing people to use their SNAP benefit card or a credit card to obtain tokens they can spend like cash at the market, but the token system will probably be abandoned during the health crisis.

“We will be doing things a little different for SNAP customers,” Moehle said. “We very much want to make sure they continue to be included.”

Figuring out how to make these systems work for a market overseen by one manager and her committee is what’s taking time and causing uncertainty in the summer market’s opening date, Moehle said. While Brighton police stop by as part of their community engagement efforts, they won’t be enforcing the alphabetical attendance rules, Moehle said.

Both Canandaigua and Brighton are depending on their extensive emails lists of customers to help educate them about changes in procedures.

Even those procedures may not be sufficient for people who are especially concerned about safeguarding their health, but also want to continue to consume local foods and support local producers. A group of vendors at the Rochester City Public Market, including some whose wholesale customers have dwindled with the shuttering of restaurants, is meeting that niche market with a no-touch farm market option.

Flour City Bread Co. is coordinating a “Friday grocery store” option in which customers order products online, choosing from Flour City’s baked goods, produce from Fisher Hill Farm, cider from Red Jacket Orchards, meats from Seven Bridges Farm and Swan’s Market, milk from Pittsford Farms Dairy and other products.

Guests order and pay online, then drive to the market on Fridays between __ 1 p.m. They text a number to provide a description of their car and their order numbers as they wait in line. Masked and gloved workers locate the corresponding box of goods and bring it to the waiting cars, depositing them in trunks without ever coming close to the driver inside. The group also offers home delivery.

Last Friday, the second week of operation, there appeared to be about 100 orders stacked up.

“We started it to try to get a complete grocery package available for people to come and pick up without interacting with a lot of other people. That was our goal,” Keith Myers, owner Flour City Bread, said in a promotional video about the service. “The response has been overwhelming.”

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Partnership at public market turns food waste into compost

Two groups have come together at the Rochester City Public Market to make sure tons of food waste are used for animal feed or turned into compost instead of being trucked to a landfill.

The joint efforts of Flower City Pickers, which has been recovering food waste at the market for four years, and Impact Earth, a company that focuses on reducing waste, began a few weeks ago.

“It’s a dance of community partners,” said Evan Lowenstein, assistant market supervisor. “Everyone’s a contributor and a beneficiary.”

The city is one of those beneficiaries, as Lowenstein estimated it saves $10,000 a year in disposal costs because of food removed from the waste stream that’s still good enough to eat.

FLower City Pickers volunteers sort through food donations at the Rochester City Public Market. Photo provided by Flower City Pickers
FLower City Pickers volunteers sort through food donations at the Rochester City Public Market. (Flower City Pickers)

Flower City Pickers, an all-volunteer organization, makes rounds of the market to collect unsold food after the sales for the day are done. They sort it and donate the best stuff to organizations that feed the poor, or – if it’s no longer fit for use by people – to farmers who feed it to their animals or use it for compost.  The farmers save on feed and fertilizer cost by using what they pick up at the market.

But every so often, farmers are not able to pick up the waste at the market. Evan Zachary, director of development for the Pickers, said a broken-down truck or a scheduling conflict has prevented farmers from picking up waste food at the market in the past.  That happened one day last year when the Flower City Pickers had a record 14,000 pounds of recovered food, so several tons went into the trash.

“We don’t throw away good food,” Zachary noted. But as one of the groups’ missions is to reduce food waste, throwing away what could be composted or fed to a farm animal is still painful. He estimated that a little less than half of what the Flower City Pickers receives goes to people; the rest is composted or used for animal feed, unless there isn’t anyone available to take it.

That’s where Impact Earth comes in. A company that grew out of Rochester Institute of Technology’s Venture Creations incubator, Impact Earth is all about reducing waste. For the last year it has run a residential compost program in which residents collect their food scraps and bring their filled buckets to specified locations to exchange them for empty ones.

As a result of customer suggestions, Impact Earth recently decided to set up a collection station at the public market and also staff a table to sell some of its waste-reducing products, such as reusable food wraps. It has five other collection sites in the county.

“The Public Market is one of those locations people visit already,” said Cassidy Putney, a co-founder of Impact Earth and director of sustainability.

Impact Earth gained a spot in the new D-shed at the market, less than a football field away from Flower City’s sorting setup.

“We had this humongous ‘aha’ moment,” Lowenstein said. Putting together the two organizations was a simple and elegant solution that the market’s officials had been mulling over for years without a solution.

The market had been considering starting a composting operation on site, but realized it would require a long-term financial commitment and staff the market didn’t have. It considered trucking food waste off the premises to a composting operation, but that would have required having a fleet or paying for one to transport the waste.

Lowenstein said every option the city considered had an obstacle that made it impractical.

“We were trying to figure out how to make this work,” he said “With the Pickers and then the arrival of Impact Earth, the loop closed and we couldn’t be happier.”

Now when Impact Earth staff arrives at the market to set up a table of waste-reduction items and accept residential compost buckets, they also bring 96-gallon receptacles like the ones people use for curbside trash pickup and leave them with Flower City Pickers. At the end of the day, they truck them away to be used at a nearby farm for animal food or compost, or a worm composting operation.

Putney said if Flower City Pickers has an especially big day at the market, Impact Earth’s headquarters is close enough that someone can go grab another load of containers to fill with compostable food waste.

The city pays Impact Earth roughly the same as it would pay to bury trash at a landfill — $60 a ton.

“That works great for us,” Lowenstein said. “We feel like we’re spending that money way more wisely.”

Zachary said in these first few weeks, the amounts taken by Impact Earth have ranged from 100 pounds to more than a ton. Seasonality has something to do with that, as a greater volume of sellers and buyers operate at the market in the spring and fall. Even if volume doesn’t change, the contents can shift, causing more to be diverted to compost.

Pigs tend to eschew citrus fruits and peppers, for example, so if a wholesaler drops off a pallet of either of those, anything that’s already a bit off goes directly to compost, he said.

Food safety regulations on rescued food also prevent distributing prepared foods, even including bagged salad mixes and baby carrots, Zachary said. The Flower City Pickers end up removing the prepared produce from its wrapping and composting it.

“We were very fortunate when the Flower City Pickers arrived on the scene on their own initiative,” Lowenstein said. “One of the heroic things the Pickers do for us, is not only do they collect stuff, they prevent or solve contamination.” By carefully sorting out packaging and other non-compostable materials, the pickers guarantee what Impact Earth or a farmer takes is safe to compost.

A volunteer packs donation boxes with food salvaged from the Rochester City Public market. Photo supplied by Flower City Pickers
A volunteer packs donation boxes with food salvaged from the Rochester City Public market. (Flower City Pickers)

Flower City Pickers is unlike most other food rescue operations, Zachary said, because it operates from a single location. That’s partly because Rochester has a vibrant outdoor market. Before expanding to other locations, he said he’d like to see Flower City Pickers gain a greater share of food waste produced by the market’s farmers and wholesalers.

“We know there is food (waste) at the market that doesn’t pass through us.” Zachary said. “There are still pallets flying around here.”

The market currently requires vendors to recycle cardboard, but it doesn’t have such a rule for compostable food waste. Lowenstein said it would be hard to guarantee the resulting product would be contamination free with so many people with varying attitudes toward recycling participating.

“A lot of them, it’s just easier to toss … than to figure out something, “Lowenstein said. He attributed the lack of composting ethic to the long hours and pace of work that vendors experience at the market. On the other hand, he said, “We certainly don’t want vendors to stick us with large quantities of waste. We really are trying to prevent vendors from leaving us with literally tons of waste on pallets.”

A new state law could change that, requiring composting as a partial solution for food waste by 2022.

“With the New York State Food Waste bill now in place, people are going to have start composting everywhere,” Putney said.

Such a law ultimately could also result in more food for soup kitchens, homeless shelters and others.
“When Vermont passed a similar law, food bank donations tripled,” Zachary said.

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With help from some friends, the public market adds new demo kitchen

Gone is the camping stove. In its place, a shiny new commercial grade range and oven.

Food demonstrations at the Rochester City Public Market just got a huge upgrade with the opening Thursday morning of the new Public Market Nutrition Education Center.

City officials and representatives of companies and organizations that supported creation and operation of the demonstration kitchen conducted a ribbon-cutting at the new center. Set inside the public market’s Shed B, the kitchen offers the opportunity for more elaborate preparations of foods that can be made with products sold at the market.

“We have an oven now, which means we can roast vegetables,” said Desiree Bass, one of two Foodlink employees who were preparing samples of asparagus in vinaigrette for observers of the opening. Co-demonstrator Marcy McMahon said the women have had to limit their demos to cold salads or things they could cook on a camping stove in the past.

Desiree Bass and Marcy McMahon, of Foodlink, give the public market's new demo kitchen a trial run. RBJ Photo by Diana Louise Carter
Desiree Bass and Marcy McMahon of Foodlink give the public market’s new demo kitchen a trial run. (Photo by Diana Louise Carter)

With the new equipment, donated by Wegmans, the demonstration kitchen will also be able to do more and offer new programs. The Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables workshops from Foodlink will be offered every Thursday and Saturday morning at 9 and 10 a.m.

Meanwhile, the Friends of the Rochester Public Market organization also is introducing the Taste of the Market Series, in which community organizations and guest chefs will offer classes and demos on two Saturdays a month.

“I can’t wait to see what Friends of the Market will roll out,” said Daniele J. Lyman-Torres, commissioner of recreation and youth services, the city department that oversees the market.   “This new nutrition center is really going to be a hub,” she said.

Jim Farr, market manager, said the kitchen has been a decade in the making as upgrades were planned for the more-than-century-old market in recent years.

“Coming to the market is as much a social outing as it is a place to get what you need,” Farr said. “Food and kitchens just naturally bring people together.”

Farr said the kitchen cost about $140,000 to build, with a state grant paying for $100,000 of that.  Wegmans donated approximately $30,000 in kitchen equipment and supplies. Summit Federal Credit Union funds programming for the kitchen, as well as the trolley that brings shoppers from their cars in distant parking lots.

Opening the public market's new demo kitchen are, from left, City Councilor Mitch Gruber, demonstration cooks Desiree Bass and Marcy McMahon, City Councilor Michael Patterson, City Commissioner Daniele Lyman-Torres, Market Manager Jim Farr, and Wegmans Consumer Relations Manager Linda Lovejoy. RBJ Photo by Diana Louise Carter
Opening the public market’s new demo kitchen are, from left, City Councilor Mitch Gruber, demonstration cooks Desiree Bass and Marcy McMahon, City Councilor Michael Patterson, City Commissioner Daniele Lyman-Torres, Market Manager Jim Farr, and Wegmans Consumer Relations Manager Linda Lovejoy. (Photo by Diana Louise Carter)

City Councilor Mitch Gruber said making sure people have access to fresh, nutritious foods has always been a goal of the market, but the kitchen demos make sure shoppers gain the skills to prepare those foods.

“This public market is the best in the country. It’s a jewel and something to be very proud of,” said Linda Lovejoy, community relations manager for Wegmans.

The market also inspires feelings of familial tradition and ownership, evidenced by comments offered by Gruber and fellow City Councilor Michael Patterson. Gruber and his wife were married at the market. Patterson recalled his frequent visits as a child with his grandparents. He continues to visit frequently.

“I learned how to haggle in his market,” Patterson said.  “You get a lesson in commerce in this place.” Patterson joked that his main purpose in visiting Thursday was to get some special bread from a bakery there, only to find out he was competing for the loaves with another customer who turned out to be his wife.

While the new demonstration kitchen cannot be rented for commercial purposes, citizens can offer ideas for its programming by contacting the market through its webpage or its social media.

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State makes move to continue farm market sales to people receiving SNAP benefits

New York farmers, including those who sell at the Rochester City Public Market, will be able to continue selling to SNAP recipients after the state leap-frogged over a federal problem that could have halted farm market sales to people who receive public food assistance.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently awarded a contract for processing the sales from recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to a brand-new company that didn’t have the necessary mobile technology for making the transactions. As a result, the company that used to process those sales across the country was in danger of going out of business.  On Friday, New York State and the Farmers Market Federation of New York announced they have reached an agreement to have Novo Dia Group process farm market sales with SNAP benefits in this state through the rest of the farm market season.

Nearly $3.4 million in sales have been made at farm markets across the state to New York’s SNAP recipients.

“New York will not stand idly by as the federal government’s ineptitude takes food out of the mouths of New Yorkers,” said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in a news release. “This is just another example of the Trump administration’s continued assault on the nation’s most needy. While the federal government doles out a contract to an untested company using outdated technology, we will continue to protect not only our most vulnerable residents, but our hard-working farmers.”

The state also suggested that New York’s solution could be a model for other states. Novo Dia had been serving 1,700 markets across the nation.

“We applaud Governor Cuomo’s quick action in shoring up Novo Dia Group for the remainder of the market season and making it possible for SNAP to be used at farmers’ markets,” said Diane Eggert, executive director of the market federation. “Losing access to SNAP through the Novo Dia Group would have been devastating to farmers’ markets. Low income consumers would lose access to fresh, healthy and locally grown foods, while our state’s farmers would have lost significant income that is critical to supporting our family farmers.”

Richard A. Ball, state commissioner of Agriculture and Markets, also praised the governor’s quick action and added: “The possibility of any kind of disruption of service for those who rely on the electronic benefits service is not acceptable, and we will continue to work with OTDA, the Farmers Market Federation of NY and Novo Dia toward a long-term solution for our communities.”

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Donation brings Wi-Fi to the Rochester City Public Market

Now you can bring your laptop to the Rochester Public Market.

A contribution of equipment and technical assistance from Datto, the international IT leader that recently built a major presence in downtown Rochester, has helped provide free Wi-Fi at the public market.

Shoppers who linger at the market over coffee before or after browsing the produce now will be able to browse the Internet more easily, too.

“While we pride ourselves on having a historic Public Market, we also know that our facilities must serve the public of today,” said Mayor Lovely A. Warren.  “We extend our deep gratitude to Datto for their generous contributions of equipment and expertise that improves the market and helps create more jobs, safer and more vibrant neighborhoods and better educational opportunities for our city.”

“Datto is committed to investing in the City of Rochester, and if this small contribution can play a role in continuing to grow Rochester’s appeal as a center for technology growth, it is a win for all of us” said Datto Chief Marketing Officer Matthew Richards.

Datto, founded by Rochester Institute of Technology grad Austen McChord, provided equipment for the market’s Wi-Fi infrastructure and support to configure, test and launch the network. They’re continuing to provide tech support for free.

The system provides a dedicated network for vendors and a guest network for customers and visitors.

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