STONE RIDGE, N.Y. — Elizabeth Ryan has dedicated her entire adult life to promoting the local food movement, which is facing a major challenge right now in New York City, epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in America.
Through April 6, more than 4,700 deaths had been reported across the state in addition to 17,000 people hospitalized. Those numbers continue to rise daily, and most are in the city, where the health care system can barely keep up with the strain.
GrowNYC’s 50 greenmarkets, found across all five boroughs, are doing their best to supply people with fresh food, but farmers such as Ryan are walking a tightrope, torn between supporting customers and staff, who need and want to work, and the risks of exposure for all parties involved.
“If the critical importance of a resilient local food system was not obvious before, it certainly should be now,” said Ryan, owner of Breezy Hill Orchard in upstate Ulster County. “Despite the popularity of markets, our income is down 50 to 80% depending on market location, due to fewer customers. We’ve lost all restaurant-based wholesale business for both hard ciders and farm products, which represents about 20% of our annual income.”
She still takes apples, eggs and other goods to the Union Square market, but has stopped going to the Inwood Greenmarket because traffic simply isn’t there. Markets in residential neighborhoods are faring the best. Those in more commercial districts, devoid of tourists and where schools and retail stores are closed, are feeling the greatest impact.
“You can skate down Fifth Avenue,” Ryan said. “It’s like a ghost town.”
Seven greenmarkets have been closed, such as those at Brooklyn Borough Hall, City Hall Park and Staten Island Ferry. GrowNYC has also adopted strict disease-prevention protocols at all sites, and several of its other programs — adult field trips, school gardens and farmer assistance initiatives — have been canceled or postponed indefinitely.
Ryan has been a greenmarket participant since 1977, a year after the project’s inception, and also founded farmers markets in several Hudson Valley towns and cities — Kingston, Rhinebeck, Millbrook and Cold Spring.
She’s noticed a definite shift in consumer purchasing patterns since the pandemic’s onset.
“People are more thoughtful about what they buy,” she said. “They’re getting staples like eggs and pasta. They’re skittish about things like raw produce that other people might have touched.”
Customers are now prohibited from touching or handling food at greenmarkets, and social distancing rules must be adhered to.
“GrowNYC is doing a fantastic job creating a safe environment and keeping markets open as best they can,” said Lynne Olson, co-owner with her husband, Bill, of Hickory Ledges Farm & Distillery in Canton, Connecticut. “They’re controlling the number of people at markets at any given time.”
The Olsons normally take part in the Union Square market, but stopped going in mid-March because they were concerned about their health. They’re also prohibited from offering samples, which hurts business, too.
“It’s tough times for everybody,” Lynne Olson said. “It’s certainly not just us. Everybody’s doing the best they can.”
Greenmarkets provide an outlet for more than 250 farmers, growers and producers in greater metropolitan New York, including southern New England, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Olson said farms that sell directly to restaurants are especially hard hit because eateries have either closed or they’re limited to curbside and take-out orders.
“I’m worried that many may not reopen,” Ryan said. “It’s going to be tough for them to weather the storm. The real question is, where is it all going? This has been a rude wake-up call. It’s time to push the reset button and reinvent our local food system.”
Ryan believes there’s a silver lining to this dark hour. With restaurants closed, people are cooking more, and showing greater interest in food and where it comes from.
“It’s an opportunity to reshape the local food economy,” she said.
John Lekic owns Farmers and Chefs restaurant beneath Walkway Over the Hudson State Park, a former railroad bridge-turned-pedestrian path, in Poughkeepsie, New York. The business has 16 employees.
“My biggest concern is trying to keep people working, keep people occupied,” he said. “The longer it goes, the harder it will be.”
He’s kept his restaurant open for take-out service, and also has a mobile food truck. In addition, he’s in the process of creating a small on-premises urban farm by using soil-based vertical containers to grow kale, lettuce, basil and similar goods.
Lekic also sources produce from nearly a dozen Hudson Valley farms.
Many small cities have launched farmers markets in recent years as a way to boost their local economies by drawing people to downtown areas. The upstate New York cities of Glens Falls and Saratoga Springs recently moved their markets outdoors, from wintertime indoor sites. Some participating farms have adapted to the health crisis by offering new services such as pre-ordering, home delivery and Google order forms that allow people to simply pick up bagged items instead of browsing through the market.
Similar steps are being taken at farmers markets coast to coast and even in Hawaii where KHON-TV reports that a market in Mililani is set up for grab-and-go, with no more seating areas or musical entertainment. And the Windward Mall Farmer’s Market has 11 vendors instead of the 35 it had previously.
“It’s a time of great change,” Ryan said.