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Farmers Markets Rely on Tech to Serve Communities During Pandemic

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Cobblestone Farmers Market is the only sustainable farmers market in Forsyth County, N.C., says founder Margaret Norfleet-Neff. (Adobe Stock)
Cobblestone Farmers Market is the only sustainable farmers market in Forsyth County, N.C., says founder Margaret Norfleet-Neff. (Adobe Stock)
 By Nadia Ramlagan - Producer, Contact
December 15, 2020

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- North Carolina farmers markets increasingly are relying on technology to keep up access to fresh food during the pandemic.

Co-founder of the Cobblestone Farmers Market in Winstom-Salem Margaret Norfleet-Neff said at the height of the pandemic learning curve, new safety protocols dramatically reduced the number of vendors and customers each Saturday morning.

Before COVID, the market averaged 4,000 people a weekend. She realized in order to keep up access to fresh food, shopping had to be expanded throughout the week with online pre-order and payment options, as well as drive-through pick-up.

She said a number of technologies can help farmers markets serve different community groups when going online.

"Whether somebody is using an EBT card or a regular credit card, or a check, or any of those things, the better we work out those systems so that it's super easy, yes, I think it creates a much broader accessibility to fresh food," Norfleet-Neff said.

A $4,000 community mini-grant from the American Heart Association and Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina allowed Norfleet-Neff to implement the changes and hire more staff.

She pointed out that while fewer people relied on the market at the start of the COVID-19 crisis, she believes expanding online ordering and drive-through pick-up will allow more customers, especially seniors, SNAP recipients, and Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program participants to buy food contact-free as the pandemic stretches on.

"The numbers decreased -- I'll say they decreased onsite -- when we put the two together, still a dip, but the purchasing power was higher across the board," she said.

Linda King, director of community impact at the American Heart Association, said food access in the Triad region continues to be challenge during the pandemic.

"A lot of organizations that we're hearing from are saying our need is 3-4 times greater than it's ever been," King said. "For the Triad, nutrition security is already an issue because we have 47 food deserts. So, that's an issue in and of itself."

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, producers across the country increasingly are selling goods directly to consumers through farmers markets, and a growing number of markets now accept SNAP benefits. The USDA reports the number of SNAP households shopping at their local farmers market jumped by more than 35% between 2012 and 2017.

Disclosure: American Heart Association of North Carolina contributes to our fund for reporting on Health Issues. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
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