PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Pittsfield Farmers Market went virtual this to serve the community in a safe and effective manner during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The market is a program of Roots Rising, an award-winning nonprofit organization whose mission is to empower youth and build community through food and farming.
When confronted with the novel coronavirus pandemic, Roots Rising co-Directors Jamie Samowitz and Jess Vecchia quickly went into emergency response mode to figure out how they could best serve the community. They came out with a plan for a Virtual Farmers Market with the same values as the in-person market: food justice and affordable, accessible, local food for all.
The market was funded by multiple foundations, businesses, individual donors, and city funding. Roots Rising has also received a number of COVID-19 emergency funds from organizations such as Berkshire United Way, Health New England, Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare, Berkshire Agricultural Ventures, and Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation.
Samowitz and Vecchia explained in an email interview that they wanted to provide a centralized virtual marketplace where people can support many local farms at once, rather than ordering from each farm separately.
"Individual farmers were attempting to create direct ordering and delivery systems in response to the pandemic. This was amazing, but for shoppers there was no efficient, centralized means of ordering from multiple farms and food producers and getting that food delivered to their doorsteps," they wrote. "We sent out a community survey back in March and learned that over 85 percent of respondents were concerned about their health and safety and looking to have food delivered to their door. And 100 percent wanted to support local farmers."
They were most concerned about their farmers during this time because their livelihoods can depend on the farmers market.
"While small businesses around the country were reeling from the economic ramifications of the pandemic, we were concerned that our farmers were especially at-risk," they wrote. "In the best of times, farmers still need to navigate steep upfront expenses, narrow profit margins and time-sensitive products that require a reliable and stable customer base. By early spring, farmers had already made their crop and financial plans, and these plans were built around the availability of regular farmers markets such as our own."
Samowitz and Vecchia were also concerned with low-income community members who depend on Pittsfield Farmers Market's food justice programs to make fresh healthy food available to them.
The goal of the virtual market is to offer a vending opportunity to farmers so they will receive a weekly income and relieve some of the logistical burdens the pandemic has put on them, offer a robust financial assistance program to low-income residents, and give high-risk community members access to local food without the risk of exposure to the virus.
The Virtual Farmers Market is logistically much different than the in-person market and includes an extensive amount of behind the scenes work.
Every Monday, the online store opens at noon and shoppers can purchase a wide variety of food from farmers and food producers until Tuesday at 7:30 a.m. During the week, orders are compiled for the vendors, volunteers are coordinated, and map delivery roots and packing slips are printed.
On Saturday, farmers drop off everything that was purchased and a volunteer team packs and distributes the food.
Volunteers deliver food to five local towns and offer a curbside pickup option.
In normal years, Pittfield Farmers Market accepts food assistance benefits such as SNAP, WIC, and senior benefits. Because these methods of payment need to be processed in person, Roots Rising has changed the method of financial assistance for the Virtual Farmers Market by using emergency relief funds to greatly increase the amount of assistance it offers.
The market gives 100 shoppers a week a $30 discount through their weekly financial assistance lottery and has a bi-monthly Benefits Day on which shoppers can order pre-packed fruit and vegetable boxes at a 50 percent discount and use nutrition benefits to pay the balance during a curbside pickup.
The market is selling items from around 20 farmers and food producers to about 200 Berkshire County households each week. Selections include meat, produce, dairy, honey, baked goods, and more.
Samowitz and Vecchia have been overwhelmed by the positive community response Roots Rising has been given from this program. The market has been flooded with orders from the very first day, their farmers have generated significant income, and the community has expressed its gratitude for having this as a safe and efficient source for local food.
Low-income shoppers are also appreciative of the financial assistance program. One wrote to the directors that:
"These are tough times. In another lifetime I would probably be one of the volunteers for Roots Rising. Then life changes and I find both my health and my wealth compromised. I'm not sure how mere words will convey how helpful the Virtual Farmers Market has been. It reminds me that no person is an island. We all need each other to make it through. Thanks for all you do to make it happen — you really make a difference."
The market has also been tremendously supported by volunteers. So far, 105 community members volunteer to pack or deliver food and 30 to 40 show up each week for distribution day.
"The community that has come together to help us run the Virtual Farmers Market has really been one of the silver linings of the pandemic," Samowitz and Vecchia wrote, expressing their gratitude for this program coming together with the help of the volunteers.
One volunteer said in regard to this new kind of farmers market: "This is the new model, folks. We're learning that caring for each other is what builds a resilient community. It's not Amazon, it's not big-box stores. It's local people helping neighbors and coming together for a single purpose. We can all do our part to enrich our community."
Samowitz and Vecchia say the program has made an incredible impact in the community. In the past 6 1/2 months of operation, the directors said the Virtual Farmers Market has:
Processed more than 5,200 orders
Worked with 105 community volunteers to pack and distribute food
Generated more than $190,000 in sales for farmers and food producers
Given out approximately $75,000 worth of fresh food through the financial assistance program
Purchased more than $8,000 of fresh food to donate to South Congregational's food pantry
Provided more than $14,000 worth of delivery services for free to the elderly, those at high risk for the virus, and those suffering from economic hardship
Over this time, Roots Rising has also formed several strong community partnerships including a collaboration with Berkshire Agricultural Ventures, which provided staffing and funding, and Barrington Stage Company, gave access to its 5,000-square-foot warehouse as a food distribution space.
After the market closes in November, Samowitz and Vecchia will turn their attention back to in-person programming. Roots Rising will relaunch its Youth Crews and outdoor Pittsfield Farmers Market in 2021 with adjustments made to meet pandemic precautions.
As for the Virtual Farmers Market, Roots Rising will be passing the baton to Berkshire Agricultural Ventures, which is working on a plan to continue the virtual market year round.
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