The sign at the Homer Farmers Market on Ocean Drive, as seen on April 24, 2020, in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

The sign at the Homer Farmers Market on Ocean Drive, as seen on April 24, 2020, in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

Homer Farmers Market, Alaska Food Hub set to start this month with safety precautions

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic brought businesses and much of society to a screeching halt in March, life has looked a lot different, even here in the Last Frontier. Now, as businesses cautiously begin to reopen, Homerites can rejoice in the knowledge that their annual access to local foods will be maintained — it’ll just look a little different.

Both the Alaska Food Hub, a nonprofit food marketplace project sponsored by Cook Inletkeeper, and the Homer Farmers Market are returning this season to fill the tables and bellies of area families. Robbi Mixon, local foods director with the hub and the Alaska Farmers Market Association, said both organizations have tweaked their protocols in order to comply with state mandates and keep the public safe while the novel coronavirus is still a threat.

The Food Hub starts up in Homer on Friday, begins on May 15 in Ninilchik and Soldotna, and on May 22 in Seldovia. The Homer Farmers Market starts on May 30.

The Food Hub is, in its nature, a socially distanced way to get food, Mixon explained. Therefore, a few alterations to its operations were all that were needed to maintain health and safety. The Food Hub connects local food producers (fishermen, farmers and makers of other goods) to local customers through an online ordering system.

On a weekly cycle, producers list what food and goods they have coming available. Customers log on and select the goods from those lists they want to buy. And the end of the ordering cycle, producers pack up whatever has been purchased and Food Hub staff organize it for pick up. There are pickup locations in Homer, Soldotna and Seldovia.

“The biggest changes are that, for our producer drop off, they are going to stay outside the building,” Mixon said. “We’re going to sanitize all the bins that the food comes in.”

Aggregation of produce and goods will all be handled by staff, she said. Only one person with gloved hands and a face mask will be sorting the produce.

On the customer end of the Food Hub, people picking up their orders will no longer be allowed into the buildings at the pickup locations. They will have to call from the parking lot, and a staff member will bring their order out to them, Mixon said.

Mixon said the hub is still offering a sliding scale for membership fees. Members of the hub can pay anything from $1 to $100 as a membership fee.

“We wanted to remove that barrier for anyone that wanted to join,” Mixon said, recognizing that many people are experiencing financial hardship right now.

The Farmers Market, annually teeming with life and known for making a splash and some slower traffic on Ocean Drive each weekend, will require more changes in order to keep people safe. In order to maintain social distancing, booths will be placed 10 feet apart. The organization is also getting rid of the center aisle for now. This means fewer booths overall, so Misox said the market will prioritize food producers and value-added food producers for the early part of the season.

The market will also be limited to Saturdays only for right now. Mixon said the addition of a Wednesday market is a relatively new feature, so going back to just Saturdays isn’t a huge change.

The market has a timeline set out by which it will reevaluate the situation and decide whether and when to add more vendors and producers back into the mix.

“We know things are changing very rapidly,” Mixon said. “So we are going to be reassessing this a few more times.”

The market will also have a drive-through component this season. The market’s information booth will be moved to the long tent at the end of the market area where live music is usually stationed. That’s where producers will leave orders that people can make online ahead of time. Then, those people can drive up to the back of the tent to pick up those orders on market day.

The market will not be selling merchandise right away this year, as it’s a product that a lot of people tend to touch before they decide to buy it, Mixon said. The market will not be doing its gold coin program, and customers are encouraged to bring small bills, she said.

Vendors will be encouraged to use touchless payment options with their customers, but that’s not something the market can standardize for all the producers. If vendors are going to be accepting cash, Mixon said they have to have one person handling food and another handling money, or at the very least one hand for produce and the other for accepting payment.

The market will still continue its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Those who use SNAP swipe their card at the information booth and redeem tokens to spend with the vendors. The market doubles the amount of those tokens.

This year, the market will be absent of music, samples and kids’ activities.

“Nothing that’s going to keep folks at the market, so this is truly going to be a grab and go,” Mixon said.

The first hour of the market will be reserved for senior shoppers and those with compromised immune systems, and the market overall will have a limit of about 50 people at one time. This will require some more crowd and traffic control, Mixon said.

The market has received a few grants through the Homer Foundation, Mixon said, in order to be able to keep operating amidst losing about two thirds of its normal revenue.

To read the full current protocols for the Homer Farmers Market, visit homerfarmersmarket.org/2020-covid-19-update—-market-protocol.html

Despite all the challenges conducting the market safely will pose, Mixon said there are a number of benefits to being able to offer it to people.

“I think for the Farmers Market, open air is a good benefit,” she said. “We’re able to space folks out a good amount.”

This can be a preferable alternative to busy, cramped grocery store aisles while the disease is still a threat.

The market also provides another revenue source for local farmers, many of whom will have lost revenue due to restaurants they normally sell to operating at reduced capacity.

Mixon said “there’s no silver lining to this whole pandemic, but if there was one,” it would be the fact that food security is at the forefront of a lot of Alaskans’ minds right now.

“We’re just one Seattle port closing away from having a pretty rough food supply issue on our hands,” Mixon said.

The potential threat to Alaska’s supply chain, especially when it comes to food, is making people think more seriously about food security.

Mixon emphasized that the current protocols set in place for both the market and the hub are the best plan organizers have for vendor safety, staff safety and public safety.

“The main thing that we want folks to know is that this is our best plan that we have right now, and that we are totally adaptable,” she said.

Reach Megan Pacer at mpacer@homernews.com.

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