All Heart

How farmers at the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market in San Francisco have been impacted by COVID-19, wildfires, and the year that is 2020.

Two Dog Farm

“When it all started, no one knew what to expect, so we just plowed ahead like it was a normal year.” That’s farmer Mark Bartle describing the COVID-19 crisis’ impacts on his business. Mark runs Two Dog Farm and operates a stand at the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market in San Francisco’s United Nations Plaza. He says that business at the market, which is open every Wednesday and Sunday, is down significantly due to the closure of surrounding offices. Under normal circumstances, many office workers shop for produce during the weekday market.

The fact that Two Dog Farm is still operational is just short of a miracle: Mark’s family home and farm building instructure burned down in the fires. While the crops were preserved, the farm fell within the burn zone, limiting access. Two Dog Farm lost a month’s production of peppers because access was restricted for several days. A Go Fund Me for the farm has raised $33,000, helping Two Dog get back on their feet. While it’s not enough to recover everything that was lost because of the fire, Mark shows up at Heart of the City twice a week. “You have to roll with the punches and do what you can.”

Market shoppers during a day with bad air quality due to the smoke from the wildfires.

This year’s fire season in California has been record-setting. Five of the ten largest fires in California history happened in the past few months. San Francisco residents, while separated geographically from the fire zones, are acutely aware of their severity. In September the smoke from the wildfires was so thick that it obscured the sunlight. Market customers shopped for produce amid a deep orange haze.

Even in areas where the wildfires haven’t been active, their smoke has affected many farms throughout the state. Poli Yerena from Yerena Farms has been serving Heart of the City from the year it began, and also serves on its Board of Directors. Smoke has impacted his berries and tomatoes in particular. This is just one example of how pervasive the impacts of the wildfires have been, regardless of how close a grower’s farm is to the fires themselves.

Poli Yerena sorts tomatoes at the Yerena Farms stand
Tomatoes affected by the wildfire smoke
Customers separated from produce by yellow caution tape

Farmers have also had to reconfigure how they manage their stands. Before the pandemic, customers would select their own produce, sifting through piles of mushrooms, tomatoes, and onions for a preferred texture and ripeness. Now, everything is pre-bagged, and yellow caution tape separates customers from the produce.

A sign directing customers to avoid touching produce
Customers at Far West Fungi’s Heart of the City stand
Staff at Far West Fungi package mushrooms for customers

At Far West Fungi, additional staff are sent to the stands to help with the transfer of mushrooms from the stand to the customer when a purchase is made. This is a new burden on the business and adds to concerns about their team’s safety and health. Sean Garrone, one of the four brothers who run the farm and a current HOCFM board member, says that they’re taking all precautions, including gloves, masks, and social distancing.

While COVID-19 has affected sales and changed the usual layout of the farmers’ market, there are reasons to be optimistic. Sean says that the boost from customers who are cooking at home more often helps. This trend is as much a reflection of life during the pandemic as it is of the importance of farmers’ markets and grocery stores in the day-to-day lives of urban dwellers. “We’re very fortunate that it was decided to keep these farmers’ markets open,” says Sean Garrone, one of the four brothers who manages Far West Fungi. According to national data from the USA, monthly sales for food consumed at home has increased since the start of the pandemic and shelter-in-place policies, while food purchased away from home is just now beginning to slowly recover.

A graph showing the effects of COVID-19 on the amount of money people spend at restaurants versus home cooking. After the shelter-in-place orders in early 2020, restaurant spending drops sharply, and grocery spending increases.

However, even as urban dwellers are cooking at home more, this may not be an option for many Heart of the City customers. With nearby offices closed, shoppers are predominantly residents of the surrounding neighborhoods, many of which are low-income. Housing in the area is largely Single Resident Occupancy units with shared kitchen spaces, which face strict guidelines to prevent transmission of COVID-19 due to the increased risk their residents face. While Heart of the City provides access to fresh food for surrounding neighborhoods, it’s only one component of helping families prepare healthy food at home. Lack of kitchen space presents a significant barrier.

A map of San Francisco, showing the greatest concentration of studio and SRO housing in the Tenderloin.
Tony Mellow serves customers at Mellow’s Nursery and Farms’ Heart of the City stand

For Tony Mellow of Mellow’s Nursery and Farm, frequently-changing rules for vendors have added friction and frustration. In an industry that requires months of planning ahead, these quick changes in guidance are difficult to manage. On top of this is the stress of bringing produce from crop to pallet. Farm workers are essential to the supply chain of fresh food, and their work requires them to be on-site, which places them at the top of the list in terms of health risks. Tony reflects on the disconnect between farmers and institutions: “Those who make the rules don’t know what the situation is out in the fields.”

Shopping for flowers at Mellow’s Nursery and Farms
Ken Phan serves a Heart of the City customer at his booth

While some farmers maintained a steady presence at the market, others were reluctant. Ken Phan of Ken Phan Farm was nervous after the shelter-in-place announcements and new restrictions on the market. He paused his activity at the market during March, April, and May of this year. Even while he was taking a break from selling at the market, his farm was still producing, leading to a surplus of food he was unable to sell. “I discounted, donated, gave away here and there. I took a loss for three months. No income, no nothing for three months.” Since returning to the market, Ken has been able to bring in more income, but business is far below what it would typically be this time of the year. He’s seen business drop by 25%, and while he tried to apply for support through government stimulus programs, he was ultimately not able to navigate the complicated system. He reflected on the dilemma with empathy for other farmers who are struggling, “It is what it is. The same thing that happened to me has probably happened to a lot of people too.”

Muz at M.A. Farms sells fruit at his Heart of the City booth

Restrictions on cross-border travel between the U.S. and neighboring North American countries further complicated farmers’ operations. Muz from M.A. farms and his family found themselves taking on more of the responsibilities than they normally would. “We had issues finding workers this year. Right when COVID hit and the season was starting, a lot of workers didn’t come in to work. It was me, my dad, and my sisters for the first three months of the season.”

Jeffrey MacMullen wraps up for the day

For some farmers, the impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbated by existing issues in the city. According to Jeffrey MacMullen of We Be Honey, the market’s business has been impacted just as much by COVID-19 as it has inadequate communication from city officials about safety. “There’s a lot of conflicting information, and a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables aren’t being bought.”

A customer purchases chamomile flowers from Medrano’s Flowers

For David Medrano of Medrano’s Flowers, the re-purposing of the nearby parking lot to provide shelter for San Francisco’s unsheltered residents has made it difficult to serve his usual customers. “For older people, they can’t walk too much, so it’s important for this market to have a parking lot.”

Located in an area that’s underserved by grocery stores and in which many rely upon food stamps, the farmers’ market provides a much-needed service. There is no supermarket within walking distance of the Tenderloin, and stores that accept food stamps are primarily made up of convenience and liquor stores that stock alcohol, junk food and canned goods that, while they have long shelf lives, have limited nutritional value.

A map of San Francisco showing the percent of households which rely on food stamps. Several areas near the market, in the Tenderloin, Mid-market, South of Market, and Chinatown neighborhoods are in the 10-20% usage category.

Heart of the City is dedicated to filling that gap. Through their support for small farms, they help make fresh food accessible for low-income customers who struggle to afford healthy food in a City with the highest cost of living in the nation. The organization minimizes operating costs to keep participation fees as low as possible for small farmers. The market has a flexible attendance policy, which means that vendors only need to pay their stall fees when they participate and have crops growing to sell. So far this year, they’ve raised $650,000, which has been passed to low-income customers to buy healthy food from vendors. In a typical year, they collect and distribute around $1 million in food assistance. It is the largest farmers’ market EBT program in California and one of the three largest in the nation.

A customers checks in at the Heart of the City information stand

The importance of the market during COVID-19 is borne out in the numbers. Participation has increased 47% in Heart of the City Farmers’ Market’s food access programs during the pandemic and they estimate that they serve more than 1,400 low-income CalFresh EBT customers each market day. Over 2,000 new participants have joined their food access programs since the start of the pandemic.

In just 9 months, Heart of the City has already exceeded the amount of food relief distributed in 2019 by $115,000.

A graph showing the farmers' market's yearly expendetures in the CalFresh program.
Capacity at Heart of the City is limited to ensure customers can shop at a safe distance

Even with the increase in food assistance, however, not all farmers have been able to weather the combination of the pandemic and California’s devastating wildfire season. The market has lost over $72,000 in expected stall fee income due to the impacts of the pandemic and smoke on participation. Over 50 vendors have had to reduce or suspend participation. Some may be forced out of business permanently. Those farms that are still able to participate, many of which are families and long-time vendors with Heart of the City, are cutting costs and working longer hours. “We still have expenses”, says Isabelle of Paredez Farms. “We had to cut down on how many people were working on the farm. Along with the fires, it’s had a drastic impact on our livelihood. We travel 5 hours in one direction. We’ve been doing this for more than 30 years. I grew up out here.”

Considering that farmers’ lives and businesses have been thrown off track, their passion for providing customers with quality produce doesn’t appear to have been scratched — if anything, just the opposite. Toward the end of our interview, a Two Dog Farm customer interrupted to ask Mark about the best way to prepare peppers she purchased. “What do you suggest I do if I want to use these all at once?”

Mark’s attention quickly shifted away from our conversation to the question at hand: “Pan fry them, squeeze a lemon on them, have a plate of coarse salt next to them, dip them and eat them while they’re still hot, right out of the pan.” ♦︎