Local growers are advised to follow food safety protocols and consult with their local health agencies when selling foods at the Farmers Market. | Download this photo.
Farmers’ market vendors prep for season amid COVID-19 concerns
K-State food safety specialist outlines steps to protect food, customers
April 9, 2020
OLATHE, Kan. – Kansas State University food safety specialist Londa Nwadike says that, right now, science is on the side of produce growers.
“There is currently no evidence that the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, can be transmitted through food or food packaging,” said Nwadike, who has dual extension appointments with K-State and the University of Missouri.
That’s good news, she notes, for those hoping to sell their goods at local farmers’ markets, many of which are just days away from opening for the season. “And,” Nwadike said, “it’s good news for people who eat.”
In Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly issued a statewide stay home order on March 28, limiting residents to those activities that are essential. Farmers’ markets supply food and services that are considered essential functions and, thus, are exempt from the order.
Even so, growers will be taxed to find new ways to sell foods at farmers’ markets while maintaining social distancing and other safety measures.
“A lot of what we’re talking about at farmers’ markets is what we do anyway, but there are additional things we are suggesting when we are talking about preventing the spread of COVID-19,” said Nwadike, who recently hosted three online sessions to provide safety tips and answer questions from growers in Kansas and Missouri.
The safety steps Nwadike is suggesting for farmers’ markets and produce growers selling food include:
- Place vendor tables further apart to allow more space for social distancing.
- Do not serve unpackaged food as samples or for purchase. “What we recommend is that you either package your produce 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. Some markets or local health departments may not allow product samples at all.
- Do not allow customers to touch produce before buying.
- Provide hand washing and hand sanitizing stations.
- Frequently clean and disinfect high touch surfaces.
As an example, the Downtown Topeka Farmers Market announced that it is moving ahead with plans to open on April 11. Organizers of that market say they will provide four hand washing stations and are encouraging vendors to set up an empty table between the customer and produce.
Nwadike said many of the same recommendations hold for so-called U-Pick operations in which customers are allowed to enter a grower’s farm and pick their own produce.
However for U-Pick operations, she adds, farmers 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 cartons or containers from customers (such as egg containers), and pre-portion packages before selling to reduce customer contact with produce.
Nwadike also said consumers should always wash produce when they get home. That includes washing the whole produce, even if you don’t eat the peel, and wash such items as cantaloupe and potatoes with a produce brush.
“All the research shows that clean, running water is the best way for consumers to wash produce,” Nwadike said. “Produce washes have not been shown to be more effective than clean, running water.”
Safety recommendations change regularly, including this week’s announcement urging people to wear face coverings or a mask when in public. 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 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nwadike and food safety colleague Karen Blakeslee are maintaining a web page to communicate food safety issues related to COVID-19. K-State Research and Extension also provides information that produce growers should always have in place.
The Kansas Department of Agriculture also has published guidance for farmers’ markets regarding COVID-19.