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The COVID-19 pandemic left supermarkets reeling from undersupply and supply chain breakdowns, causing consumers to explore new markets and develop new food-purchasing habits.

A survey from the USDA, Colorado State University, Penn State University and the University of Kentucky found farmers markets and direct-from-producer sales will likely benefit from the shift in consumer behavior.

Thirty-five percent of survey respondents said they had purchased food from at least one new food outlet during the pandemic. Of those, 6% purchased from farmers markets, direct-from-producer and community supported agriculture businesses.

An additional 17% of respondents purchased food from a combination of farmers markets, CSAs, direct sales, artisan markets, local restaurants and food boxes.

The study also revealed 31% of consumers who began purchasing food from farmers markets during the pandemic have continued to do so, as well as 34% of consumers who purchased from CSAs and direct sales.

“We tend to see American consumers get into habits,” said Dawn Thilmany, a professor and outreach coordinator at the Colorado State University College of Agricultural Sciences and co-leader of the survey. “But (the pandemic) has got many households trying some new strategies to shop for food, many of them in support of local farms and businesses.”

Kim Hutchinson, executive director of the Virginia Farmers Market Association, noted some of the organization’s 350 affiliated markets experienced a 400% increase in business at the height of the pandemic.

A Good Outlook for Farmers Markets

Farmers markets were initially deemed non-essential by Gov. Ralph Northam’s statewide closure of businesses in March 2020. But Virginia farmers markets rallied, implementing and following stringent safety protocols to safely reopen.

“Many of our markets incurred costs for infrastructure to be able to meet the safety demands to reopen,” Hutchinson said. “And now that our farmers markets have made those investments and have seen an increase in their ability to make sales and control their markets, they’re going to continue to utilize these mechanisms to increase sales.”

To meet the growing demand for locally produced food during the pandemic, farmers and other vendors expanded their offerings so customers had regular access to popular food items. Vendors now are stocking larger amounts of beef, dairy, eggs and poultry, and Hutchinson said many are stocking late-season produce to extend the seasonality of products.

Additionally, many vendors have bolstered their online presence to connect with customers and provide up-to-date inventories, which has helped position farmers markets as reliable food hubs.

“This pandemic has showed farmers markets to be creative, flexible and essential, and I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the way markets were before.” Hutchinson said. “What COVID-19 has done for farmers markets is that it’s showed we’re all about providing local food access, making sure our communities have healthy food and supporting our farmers, which I couldn’t be more proud of.”

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