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Updated 3/21/20 — The Mendo-Lake Food Hub will begin direct food sales to individuals beginning Sunday, March 22 — Visit at www.mendolakefoodhub.org to sign up and place your order from local farmers. Deliveries are primarily in the Ukiah Valley area right now but can be coordinated to other locations.
FORT BRAGG, 3/19/20 — Although sanitizer squirters and bright red mini construction cones (set up to keep everybody 6 feet from everybody else) greatly outnumbered both farmers and food, the Fort Bragg Certified Farmers’ Market was pure thrill to 3-year-old Ayla Burkhardt and the rest of Wednesday’s patrons.
But both the Fort Bragg Market, which was closed then reopened this week, and the Mendo Lake Food Hub have faced major challenges in this new era of social distancing and shelter-in-place. Though deemed essential, in the same manner as grocery stores, the necessary safety measures, and reduced mobility of customers has quickly hurt the locally grown food supply chain.
“Mendocino has been working hard at fostering a thriving local food system, and it is at serious risk of collapsing during the Coronavirus crisis, “ explained Ruthie King, part of the farming collective the New Agrarian Collective and board member at the School of Adaptive Agriculture.*
Still, local farmers did win a breather this week with the resurrection of the Fort Bragg’s weekly Wednesday market, which has relocated outside — with the sudden loss of so many restaurants that serve farm-to-table local food is threatening local farmers, who are on the verge of the main planting season. Winter crops are being harvested, with income already thin this time of year. This has put the likes of the Mendo Lake Food Hub at peril. The Food Hub is hoping to work more closely with its counterpart in Petaluma and is mounting a big effort to switch to selling to new kinds of buyers, such as groups of friends putting together buyer clubs, said Caroline Radice, manager of the Food Hub, in an interview.
The tension between safety and the need for local food came to a head this week in Fort Bragg.
The city of Fort Bragg shut down the market in front of its own city hall this week over worries about the potential spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). At the same time, the Ukiah and Laytonville certified farmers’ markets have continued with no threat of closure. After backers from McFarm, the certifying agency, showed the city that state law classified farmers markets in the same essential category as grocery stores, the Fort Bragg Market was reopened.
With only a day’s notice, only three vendors came Wednesday, but more are expected back next week, said Julie Apostolu, manager of the Fort Bragg market.
But not all.
Due to concerns of contagion, the market will not be allowed to offer bakery items, fish, fermented or processed foods, only the produce and farm meats that are classified as certified farm products.
Jessie Taaning, one of the most familiar faces at the Fort Bragg Farmer’s Market, came from Inland Ranch in Redwood Valley. She had a strong sales day.
“When you don’t have competitors, sales go pretty well,” said Taaning, who had a line of customers when the market opened. She was selling eggs, pork, beef and other products. “Biosecurity” measures were creative. Customers put their money into Taaning’s steel pitcher. Change came from a drawer where all the money had been sterilized.
Food vendors seemed to be cleaning more than selling. Anyone who stepped inside the six-foot radius of the cones got herded back out by Apostolu and company. Corrections brought laughs but there was no doubt the security crew from McFarm was serious. Apostolu had a six foot long aluminum cane that also appeared when people forgot spacing.
“For the most part the vendors and public were very cooperative with the hand washing and distancing — but as we know, old habits are hard to break. I had three people assisting me with enforcement and will continue to have helpers each week,” Apostolu said.
The event was reopened thanks to county and state support for the importance of farmers’ markets. But the question remains how did the closure happen?
After last Wednesday’s market, a vendor became concerned about the close quarters of the indoor market (Fort Bragg’s market is held in the gym inside city hall in the winter). Apostolu proposed to Fort Bragg assistant city planner Sarah McCormick that the market move outdoors six weeks early.
“I put together a plan of social distancing, ordered hand washing stations (they had not arrived by market today, but are ready for use next week), etc. When I stopped by city hall she had the approval with a few more conditions, such as customers could not touch any products. I agreed. I notified my vendors that we were moving outdoors as of March 18.”
But the head of public works and the city manager surprised her by saying the market should be closed to protect the public from coronavirus.
“I spent two days fielding frustration and questions from vendors and the public about this. I was in contact with Elizabeth Garcia, our county Agriculture Inspector,” Apostolu said.
During that time, many vendors despaired for lack of a sales outlet. Fort Bragg’s Nye Ranch came up with a self service community supported agriculture (CSA) plan, which immediately sold out, with a line of cars waiting Wednesday afternoon in front of their farm. A CSA box is a sampling of all the products offered by a farm paid for in advance and delivered weekly
On Tuesday, Garcia provided Apostolu a copy of a California Department of Food and Agriculture directive that classifies farmers markets as essential, along with grocery stores and other vital services. The state directive also lists special security and safety measures, which all have been implemented. Seeing the state directive, the city relented and reinstated the market, Apostolu said.
Emails and calls to Fort Bragg City Manager Tabatha Miller had not been returned by completion of this article.
As for pandemic safety measures, the most popular was provided by 3-year-old Ayla and her mother Lindsay Grossman Burkhardt. They sang a hand washing song to the tune of Frere Jacque that was fun for longer than the 20 second Coronavirus standard.
Try to resist smiles while singing it, especially with a kid:
“Top and bottom, top and bottom, in between, in between. Rub your hands together, rub your hands together. Get them clean, get them clean. Rinse with water, rinse with water, then you turn it off, then you turn it off. Dry them with a towel, dry them with a towel. Then you’re all done, then you’re all done.”
Lindsay said she didn’t know the ditty’s origins but the song always gets universal smiles. Being a mom suddenly working at home with a child deprived of preschool has presented big challenges.
“She tries to be a helper (help keep others from getting sick), but being 3 she is impulsive, touching everything and has licked her hands to get back at mom for asking her to wash her hands when we got home,” Lindsay said.
Mendo Lake Food Hub struggles, adapts
Mendo Lake Food Hub provides a rich array of crops to grocery stores, restaurants, school districts and places like Fort Bragg’s Fortunate Farm farmstand. Fortunate Farm offers an honor stand with a handwashing station on the weekends, featuring its own produce as well as prepared products like bread, olive oil and chocolate from their Mendo Lake Food Hub Node.
Working with sister agency FEED Sonoma in Petaluma, the Mendo Lake Food Hub has more than 100 inland locations. Perhaps half of those locations could be have business reduced, or get closed by the restrictions put into place during the pandemic, Radice said. But in this situation
The solution is to sign up individuals to deliver the food farmers can plant and produce.
“Mendo Lake Food Hub has been distributing locally grown produce to restaurants and grocery stores, and is now making an emergency switch to providing food to individuals, households, and buyers clubs,” said Ruthie King, director of the School of Adaptive Agriculture south of Willits.
“Consider working with your neighbors or family to order local produce online, and help to support the fragile local food system through this time of crisis. Twice a week, place your order of fresh, local produce on the Food Hub website and have it delivered to you,” King said.
Does the Food Hub need lots of contributions?
“Contributions are great but what we need most is buyers, for people to sign up and buy the food,” said Radice. Adding that they are focusing on “buyers’ clubs.” She explained, “If you and your friends are getting together for wholesale delivery that’s a buyers club.”
The Food Hub may also consider direct deliveries to consumers, most likely in Ukiah and Willits, Radice said. Action can’t wait until things go back to normal, Radice said.
“Farmers are at risk of going out of business as crops are ready to harvest, and now is the time to step up to feed yourself and your community directly from our local farms,” King said.
*Editor’s note: King’s position has been corrected as of March 22; she is not directly affiliated with the Food Hub.