When the COVID-19 pandemic began to rage across Northeast Ohio last spring, farmers markets faced a big decision: Should they stay open?
For Rosemary Mudry, executive director of West Park Kamm’s Community Development Corporation, the choice was relatively easy. As head of the entity that sponsors the weekly Kamm’s Corners Farmers Market, she knew it offered a lifeline to those in need—a need that was soaring, with no clear end in sight, during the often bleak, early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We were taking the pandemic seriously, but we believe that there’s enough people who rely on us for access to dollars for fresh produce that we needed to be opened,” Mudry said.
In fact, since it opened in 2007, serving people in need had become a growing part of the market’s business. Over time, organizers expanded access to food benefit programs, helping low-income individuals and families while at the same time increasing their customer base. Although the West Park neighborhood had a median income of $52,580 from 2014-2018, the market serves a much broader area, including the Bellaire-Puritas community ($32,710) and Jefferson neighborhood ($37,553).
Last year, the market distributed the highest number of TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) vouchers across Ohio and, at 50%, had the second-highest redemption rate of TANF vouchers being used at the market.
“There’s a perception maybe that there’s not as much need, and certainly maybe there’s not as much need as other places in the county, but I think there’s still a lot,” Mudry said, stressing that the 30-vendor market serves a growing immigrant and refugee population along with low-income seniors. While the median income is high, it masks the fact that as a large neighborhood it has a similar total number of people living in poverty as places like Mt. Pleasant.
On the opposite end of town at Coit Road Farmers Market in East Cleveland, upwards of 25 vendors serve customers from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Wednesday and Saturday during the summer (Saturdays only in winter). With no grocery store close by and many residents depending on nutrition assistance programs, it’s a critical asset.
“We’re the source for fresh food in East Cleveland,” said Kevin Scheuring, the market’s manager.
Scheuring said Coit Road’s business increased last year during the pandemic and at least some of that growth occurred because of the increased availability of benefits programs. The market had more than 600 weekly customers and this year, has “held onto a small portion but a decent portion of that market share that we gained,” he said.
North Union Farmers Market is yet another vibrant market that fills a need in local food deserts, which are urban areas where it is difficult for residents to obtain fresh, high-quality food. A new Dave’s Market opened in 2019 on Chester Avenue near East 55th Street, but in many east side neighborhoods, “there’s just not much healthy access,” said Emma Visnic, general manager at North Union Farmers Market, which offers three markets in Cleveland: Shaker Square, University Hospitals and Cleveland Clinic’s main campus.
“There’s corner stores and gas stations,” but that’s about it, she said. Being a mobile farmers market and offering access programs “really does help get people to the market.”
Many of Cleveland’s farmers’ markets partner with government-funded programs to offer free voucher incentives to residents living below a certain income level. These benefit programs have expanded during the pandemic to include:
The Electronic Benefit Transfer – Ohio Direction Card allows eligible people to buy $50 worth of fruits, vegetables, dairy, bread and meat for only $25.
Women, Infants, and Children coupons are distributed at various markets four times a year for pregnant women and women with children. Vouchers include four $5 coupons to purchase fruits and vegetables.
Senior coupons allow senior citizens to spend $50 for fruits, vegetables and honey.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families gives eligible families with children a $40 voucher, distributed on specific days (Kamm’s Corners Farmers Market).
Produce Perks gives eligible families a fruit and vegetable coupon booklet worth $40, distributed on specific days.
One change due to the pandemic was that the Ohio Nutrition Incentive Network allowed unlimited matching for Produce Perks dollars from mid-March through June of 2020. If a customer put $5 on their SNAP/EBT food benefits card, the network matched the dollars and gave the customer an additional $5 in Produce Perks.
“That had a huge impact on both SNAP sales and distribution of Produce Perks,” said Amanda Osborne, the community development educator at the Ohio State University Extension office in Cuyahoga County.
As need increased during the pandemic, so did incentive sales and distribution, Osborne said. In Cuyahoga County, they increased more than 100% from 2019 to 2020. SNAP sales went from more than $35,000 in 2019 to more than $71,000 in 2020, and Produce Perks distribution went from slightly more than $32,000 in 2019 to more than $67,000 in 2020. The majority of markets taking incentive programs are in the city of Cleveland, Osborne said.
The unlimited matching by Ohio Nutrition Incentive Network “was a direct response to serve families who were in need and also farmers,” Osborne said. “We wanted to make sure that we were increasing sales for farmers who were having some challenges stemming from the closure of restaurants.”
Meanwhile, food prices soared during the pandemic, increasing 3.5% from 2019 to 2020 and outpacing the historical average by 75%, which increased the level of need. Organizers said people flocked to markets as an essential service.
Just in the first few weeks of the season, markets in Cuyahoga County are seeing similar SNAP sales and Produce Perks distribution as last year “and it’s a really good indication that the program year’s going to be really strong,” Osborne said.
Many of these urban farmers’ markets serve food deserts. For example, Coit Road Farmers Market in East Cleveland is something of an oasis for fresh fruits and vegetables. This hard-hit area has one of the lowest median incomes in Ohio—$20,743 in 2019 dollars, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The nearest grocery store is a Save A Lot more than a mile away in Cleveland Heights, and many residents don’t have cars.
“[The market’s] a resource for the people because it’s a food desert,” said Gloria Jalil, a vendor at Coit Road Farmers Market who lives in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood. She stressed, however, the need for a grocery store in East Cleveland and said that it’s a failure of local leaders that they haven’t attracted one. “We’re not here every day,” she said.
Osborne pointed to an interactive map from the Cuyahoga County Supermarket Assessment that shows where supermarkets are located in Cuyahoga County and where there are food deserts. “When you look at that food desert map that the county board of health created, most of the markets are located in those areas that they identify as high need,” she said. “These markets end up being located in areas where there is lower grocery store access.”
Osborne said one limitation of farmers’ markets is they have limited hours and most aren’t open year-round. However, organizers say they also provide support for food entrepreneurs who provide healthy, locally grown options, and that’s important.
“I think farmer markets are about creating better access today but also creating a more resilient food economy,” Mudry said. “We’re not dependent on someone else for those kinds of products.”
Kamm’s Corners Farmers Market is open on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. between June 13 and Oct. 17. 16909 Albers Ave., Cleveland, 44111.
Coit Road Farmers Market is open year-round on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and on Wednesdays between the months of June and October from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. They have senior hours from 7:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. 15000 Woodworth Road, East Cleveland, 44110.
North Union Farmers Market is open Wednesday at the Cleveland Clinic, Thursday at University Hospitals, and Saturday at Shaker Square.
This story was produced as part of an environmental justice reporting initiative involving partners Ideastream Public Media, The Land, The NewsLab at Kent State University, WKSU, La Mega, and the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative (NEOSOJO).
Kelly Krabill is a journalism major at Kent State University and an intern with the NewsLab at KSU and The Land.