For many Americans, buying fresh local food at one of the estimated 9,000 farmers markets across the U.S. is one of summer’s pleasures. But farmers markets aren’t just nice amenities. Over the past 18 months, many have filled food supply gaps caused by COVID-19 shutdowns.
While numerous farmers markets shut down at the start of the pandemic, many soon reopened under state or local guidelines that mandated masks, social distancing and other precautions.
When grocery store supply chains were disrupted, consumer interest in local foods spiked, along with concerns about exposure to the coronavirus while shopping. Farmers market managers adapted swiftly, experimenting with options like prepackaged goods and drive-thru pickup.
In fact, many farmers markets enjoyed their strongest-ever sales in 2020. Affluent shoppers became more interested in buying local food, while lower-income buyers were able to use federal benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Stepping into this expanded role was no mean feat – but we know from our research in city planning and urban food systems that with adequate support, marketplaces respond vigorously to crises and opportunities.
The fall and rise of urban farmers markets
Farmers have been selling their goods at public markets in the U.S. for centuries. Many U.S. cities evicted or sidelined street vendors in the mid-20th century to make room for large-scale retail stores. But in the 1970s and ‘80s, farmers markets started reappearing in middle-class communities and suburbs.
This resurgence, which reflected the rise of the environmental movement, was