Spring has arrived in Whatcom County, and with it, the beginning of the Bellingham Farmers Market’s season, resuming weekly Saturday business from from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Depot Square Market.
Spanning from April to December, the market is offering visitors access to local, fresh produce every week, as well as handcrafted items, household goods and prepared food.
The market previously operated on a monthly schedule for its winter season, transitioning to weekly Saturday occurrences on April 3. Since March 2020, a modified market plan has been put in place to ensure the safety of customers and vendors. Farmers markets are categorized as essential critical infrastructure under Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order and the Healthy Washington — Roadmap to Recovery plan.
Modified COVID-19 guidelines for the Bellingham Farmers Market have included mask requirements, fewer vendors, social distancing markers and enforcement and a temporary cancellation of live music events and public eating.
Lora Liegel, market director of the Bellingham Farmers Market, said that market leadership and staff have learned a lot from operating during the pandemic this past year.
Liegel said that as more information about COVID-19 surfaced, market operations adapted. At first, staff would ask customers to wait in line to prevent crowding whereas now the market has opened up more entrances to allow for a better flow of people in and out.
Liegel said she wants to encourage people to continue following masking and distancing requirements as they move into the new season.
“To keep everyone safe, that’s our number one goal,” Liegel said.
Allison VanDeWege, a second-year student at Western, has visited the market regularly since she moved to Bellingham in 2019. She said the market is not only a fun place to visit with friends, but it allows her to purchase food that is grown locally and sustainably.
“I try to get a good amount of my produce there, on a college budget it can be a little tricky sometimes, but I really appreciate the local farms here and everything they do,” VanDeWege said.
VanDeWege said she is looking forward to interacting with farmers and vendors as the Bellingham Farmers Market moves into the new season.
“Getting to chat with [vendors] about your food and where your food comes from is so much fun and definitely not an experience you can get when you're at Winco or Fred Meyer,” VanDeWege said.
Jessica Gigot, owner of Harmony Fields, a sheep cheese and organic herb farm located in Bow, said she will be selling at the Saturday markets starting on Mother’s Day weekend. After taking the past year off from selling at the market due to COVID-19, Gigot said her and the Harmony Fields staff are eager to return.
“We really miss the market and we miss the community of it and seeing the customers,” Gigot said.
Gigot said Harmony Fields was able to compensate for the lost farmers market revenue by creating a new farm stand, expanding their Community Supported Agriculture subscription box program and selling cheese products at the Bellingham Community Food Co-op’s Cordata location.
Dr. Ben Chapman, who researches food safety culture as an assistant professor at North Carolina State University, said that a lot of hesitation exists when it comes to governing bodies allowing farmers markets to operate during the pandemic. Chapman said this is because markets are often seen as congregation spaces or social settings, but that he thinks of them more as “a bunch of little grocery stores.”
“I certainly wouldn’t say it’s riskier or less risky than a grocery store,” Chapman said. “It’s just different. It's apples and oranges on what's riskier, but certainly the ability of having no constraints of walls and lots of air exchange outside gives a safe place for people to go while still managing face coverings and physical distancing.”
Gigot said one challenge the team at Harmony Fields will face during the market’s upcoming season is the inability to offer samples due to the market’s guidelines on public eating. Gigot said this is especially difficult because sheep’s-milk cheese is a product that customers often haven’t tried or heard of.
“We won’t be able to do samples this year, which in some ways makes it easier for us,” Gigot said. “It’s one less permit and step. But it’s also hard for consumers to try a new product without having tasted it.”
Chapman said there have been questions from stakeholders in the food industry regarding guidelines for vendors like Gigot and product sampling. He said as the pandemic continues to evolve, sampling, while continuing to maintain physical distance and appropriate mask usage, could be a “manageable system.”
Chapman said his research with food safety also intersects with food accessibility. According to Chapman, farmers markets have evolved over the past decade to increase access to local, sustainable food for people who utilize food security programs like EBT and SNAP.
“It's exactly where we should be and what we need to be doing more of,” Chapman said. He also added that food safety is important to consider when donating leftover food to organizations like food banks, but it shouldn’t be a barrier to providing affordable food to people.
According to Liegel, Bellingham Farmers Market has worked with the Bellingham Food Bank and local non-profit Sustainable Connections to collect food that hasn’t been sold at the end of the day. Liegel said that the market was also able to pay vendors for their leftover donated produce last year due to a grant the food bank received.
The market also participates in several programs that aim to increase food access to community members who utilize government food programs. The market accepts Pandemic EBT, EBT cards and SNAP benefits, which can be used to purchase tokens to use at food and produce vendors. Some vendors also accept WIC and Senior Checks through the federal and state-sponsored Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program.
People participating in either EBT or SNAP can also utilize the SNAP Market Match program. Market Match is a program funded by the Washington Department of Health that allows the Bellingham Farmers Market to match any EBT or SNAP benefits withdrawn by a customer up to 40 dollars.
“They swipe for 40, and then we give them an extra 40, which can be used on fresh produce, like veggies and fruit,” Liegel said. “So that's pretty great, and that's going to run for the entire season.”
Liz McLaneis a second-year journalism student at WWU. Her work for The Front focuses on city life and the Bellingham food scene. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.