Farmers’ markets adapting to virus

With farmers’ market season just around the corner, University of Missouri Extension food safety specialist Londa Nwadike says that science is on the side of produce growers.

“There is currently no evidence that the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, has been transmitted through food or food packaging,” said Nwadike, who has dual extension appointments with MU and Kansas State University.

That’s good news for those hoping to sell their goods at local farmers’ markets, many of which are just days away from opening for the season. “And it’s good news for people who eat,” she said.

Farmers’ markets supply food and services that are considered essential functions, so they are exempt from Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s statewide stay-home order.

Even so, growers need to find new ways to sell foods at farmers’ markets while maintaining social distancing and other safety measures, Nwadike said.

“A lot of what we’re talking about at farmers’ markets is what we should do anyway, but there are additional things we are suggesting when we are talking about preventing the spread of COVID-19,” said Nwadike, who along with MU Extension horticulture specialists Debi Kelly and Patrick Byers recently hosted three online sessions to provide safety tips and answer growers’ questions.

Suggested safety steps for farmers markets and produce growers selling food include:

•Place vendor tables farther apart to allow more space for social distancing.

•Do not allow customers to touch unpackaged food before buying. “What we recommend is that you either package your food in a bag on a table in front of the vendor, or the vendor keeps their produce behind them and bags it for the customer,” Nwadike said.

•Provide hand-washing and hand-sanitizing stations.

•Frequently clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces.

•Wear a face mask while interacting with customers.

 

Nwadike said many of the same recommendations hold for so-called “U-pick” operations, in which customers may enter a grower’s farm and pick their own produce. However, U-pick operations are advised to limit the number of people on the property at one time.

“Communicate with your customers,” Nwadike said. “Ask them if they have symptoms, or if they have been exposed to someone with a known COVID-19 case, to please stay home.”

Roadside farm stands should follow similar safety measures. Farm stand operators should avoid taking back non-cleanable containers from customers and pre-portion packages before selling to reduce customer contact with produce.

Consumers should always wash produce when they get home, she added. That means washing the whole produce, even if you don’t eat the peel. Wash items such as cantaloupe and potatoes with a produce brush.

Nwadike says commercial produce washes have not been shown to be more effective than water from the kitchen faucet. “All the research shows that clean, running water is the best way for consumers to wash produce,” she said.

Safety recommendations change regularly. For the most current information on the spread of COVID-19 and the government’s response, consumers should contact their local or state health department or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.