Voices: Thanks Missoula County for opening our farmers markets

Nothing says “summer” in Missoula more than our farmers markets. Two of our most popular markets—the Clark Fork River Market and the Missoula Farmers Market—have evolved over the years, and have transformed into social and cultural hubs of the county.

Yet, the core purpose of the farmers markets remains: they are venues where our local farmers and ranchers can sell fresh, healthy and locally-produced food directly to the public, including to those on low or fixed income. Community Food and Agriculture Coalition (CFAC) and our partners have made great strides in expanding access to healthy fresh food at farmers markets through the Double Snap Dollars (DSD) program. Thanks to this program, SNAP recipients can get double the value on food purchases at Missoula’s farmers markets and twenty other markets around the state.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic that is sweeping the nation, however, the Missoula City-County Health Department has delayed the opening of our farmers markets until May 23. The Health Department is rightfully concerned about the markets—and the large crowds they attract—becoming a vector for spreading the coronavirus. We are too. On any given Saturday, the markets are packed with shoppers, vendors and people socializing in close proximity to one another. The markets, at least how they have functioned during normal times, constitute large gatherings that could spread infectious disease in the community.

That’s why we are grateful to the Health Department, the market managers, the County Commissioners and others who worked hard to arrive at a plan to minimize risk of disease transmission, while still allowing local farmers to sell their nutritious produce to local customers.

We are fortunate that the closure of our markets has been averted. Full closure—even for a single season—would have threatened the viability of our local area farmers, and with it, the very food security of our community. With crops already planted for the season, many area growers could very well go bankrupt if they did not have a venue in which to sell their goods. Bankruptcies leads to farm foreclosures and sales, and a loss of irreplaceable agricultural land and soils. And once our local farming land and infrastructure is lost, the capacity of the Missoula valley to feed its inhabitants would be in jeopardy, and with it, our very community resilience.

We’ve always taken it for granted that supermarket shelves would have food on them. But in the last few weeks, the coronavirus has begun to upend food supply chains around the country. Major food processors and distributors like Tysons, JBS and Smithfield have announced COVID-91 related shutdowns. Similarly, large agricultural operations that rely on migrant farm labor may be exposed to coronavirus outbreaks among workers, who are often housed in cramped quarters. In short, the pandemic has revealed major vulnerabilities in our industrial, corporate-controlled food system.

To protect us against such perturbations in the global food system, Missoulians have spent decades nurturing our local farming capacity and food distribution system. And the farmers markets are the lifeblood of this local industry. Without the farmers markets, our ability to withstand disruptions in the food supply chain is at-risk. Times like these are precisely the times that our local community organizations like farmers markets become most important to community resiliency and our likelihood of emerging from this crisis more intact than we would otherwise.

We know the markets will look entirely different than they do in normal times. There will be fewer stalls, social distancing, enhanced sanitation, and one-way pedestrian traffic and other measures to protect public health. In fact, CFAC recently received funding from the state to provide supplies to our DSD-participating markets, including hand sanitizer made by Headframe Spirits in Butte.

We thank the Health Department for working with the farmers, the markets and local food and agriculture advocates to chart a path for the farmers markets to perform their vital role in the community this summer. These “open air grocery stores” are essential. We hope everyone will order online or shop for fresh local food in person when the markets reopen, while practicing pandemic transmission prevention measures. The future food security of Missoula and Western Montana depends upon it.

Derek Goldman and Julie Peters serve on the board of the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition (CFAC). Julie Peters owns and operates Red Hen Farm and Orchard with her husband Greg.