GRAND RAPIDS — In March, organizers at the Fulton Street Farmers Market in Grand Rapids were preparing for their biannual soup-tasting fundraiser. Usually, vendors and West Michigan restaurants donate soups for the event. Hundreds of people gather to taste food from the cooler weather season, catch up with one another and support the market.
“It’s a celebration of our second season market and it’s a great way to highlight local restaurants,” Rori Jean Trench, executive director and market manager, said of the event.
At a meeting about a week before the fundraiser, which was scheduled to take place on March 24, one of the market’s board members voiced concerns about holding such a large event in the face of a possible outbreak of COVID-19. In the end, the board and staff decided together to postpone, and perhaps, cancel the fundraiser.
The next day, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer reported Michigan’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 and issued a state of emergency.
“It was a pretty surreal moment because, up until that point, it was kind of like humming in the background but we didn’t quite understand the magnitude or how it would impact us,” Trench told MiBiz. “Ever since then, we’ve been on high alert and high speed just changing and evolving our operations, staying very in tune with what’s going on, and really communicating with all of our governing agencies to see what our best practices should be and how we can best implement those.”
For nearly 100 years and still now every week, farmers fill stands on Fulton Street with fresh produce, meats and dry goods. The market is “one of only a handful” in the region that is open year-round, which has helped Fulton Street Farmers Market adapt its operations in phases to the new operating environment, according to Trench.
“Many markets are ramping up right now and trying to figure out how they’re going to do their operations — we’ve been living it in real time,” she said. “We have not closed at any point. Every week, we’ve just continuously modified our operations, communicated with our customers, communicated with our vendors and just tried to remain diligent during this time.”
Market organizers have implemented several new safety measures in accordance with guidelines from the state and health officials. Customers are asked to stay six feet apart, send only one shopper per household and refrain from touching any products before purchase. Vendors are all stationed at outside farm stands, wear masks and gloves and continuously sanitize their areas.
To adhere to social distancing guidelines, only 66 shoppers are allowed into the market at a time and just 39 vendors are spread out among the 118 outdoor booths.
“That’s a huge cut for us, even from a financial standpoint, if we can only allow half of the vendors that we normally do,” Trench said.
Still, the market is doing well and some farmers’ produce and meats are selling more than ever, she added.
“It’s a really challenging time and we’re really having to think outside the box and change and evolve,” Trench said. “We want to celebrate that we’re in this interesting position for people who want to support their local farmers. There are a lot of unsettled feelings about what does this look like and how are farmers going to move forward during this. It’s been a really humbling experience.”
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