As the quarter finally draws to a close, it seems a fitting time to reflect on beginnings. After all, what is an ending except an opportunity to begin again? In the spirit of beginnings, I traveled back to where this column started: the U-District Farmers Market.
Having spent spring quarter away from Seattle, I had the opportunity this past weekend to pay one last visit to the U-District before returning home for the summer.
I woke up early Saturday morning to the sound of rumbling thunder and the spatter of raindrops on my window. It seems very poetic that my last farmers market trip of the quarter was accompanied by classic Seattle weather. Swathed in a rain jacket and mask, I made my way to the market.
Having covered the changes to the farmers market in response to COVID-19 all quarter, I wasn’t expecting to be surprised. However, visiting in person drove home just how stark the differences are between current farmers market operations and the market I grew to love last quarter.
The line to enter the market, which started on the end of 52nd Street, wrapped around the block, full of shopping-bag-laden figures standing 6 feet apart and hunched against the rain. Despite the long line, the wait to get into the market was short. After being waved into the market proper by a safety-vest-sporting volunteer, the true changes to the market were even more apparent.
Usually crowded full of cheerful families and their dogs strolling past packed stalls, the market looked drastically different. People walked briskly in groups of ones and twos, their faces covered by masks as they exchanged truncated conversations with vendors before loading up on produce and moving on.
The whole market felt far more like a grocery store rather than a community gathering place.
When I spoke with Sean Akers, a market manager for the U-District Farmers Market, he agreed.
“It’s become a lot more transactional, which is an unfortunate consequence of everything that’s going on,” Akers said.
The market now only has capacity for 35 vendors, which in my head seemed like a large number. In reality, the market looked empty, with few stalls spaced out in large intervals along the block.
“We’re missing a lot of our friends,” Akers said.
Akers added that, at this time of year, the market typically has capacity for between 75 and 80 vendors, so the reduction has cut the market down by more than half.
In response to these restrictions, Akers told me that the Seattle Neighborhood Farmers Markets are currently working on developing a new pre-ordering system to increase the number of shoppers and vendors the market can serve while still abiding by social distancing guidelines.
Every volunteer with whom I chatted expressed similar sadness that the community nature of the market has changed. However, they all shared their gratitude for the hard work of farmers and for the role of farmers markets in the U-District community.
Despite the myriad of changes, my trip was still a rewarding experience. With the tentative beginnings of a Pacific Northwest summer, the market was full of stalls selling flats of shiny, red strawberries. Flower vendors are now able to sell at the markets, so the block was punctuated with bright bursts of color from bouquets. My favorite cider vendor, Rockridge Orchards, was also present, and I stocked up on bottles of cider for my trip home.
These past two quarters have opened my eyes to the importance of local food and the role farmers play in our community. Akers’ message to farmers said it best.
“Hang in there; if you need help, ask for it, you’re not alone, we’re with you.” Akers said. “The people of Seattle support the farmers.”
While the purpose of the markets may have shifted, I still greatly prefer the experience of buying my produce from the people who grew it, rather than the impersonal experience of shopping at a grocery store. There is something sacred about being able to look a farmer in the face and share companionship over food, even if it is from behind a mask.
Reach columnist Zoe Luderman Miller at email@example.com. Twitter: @zozozaira
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