How NYC's Farmers Markets are Successfully Surviving COVID-19

Image courtesy of GrowNYC

Image courtesy of GrowNYC


Written by: Ricky Stephens

As part of Agritecture’s Digital Conference Series, I sat down with Liz Carollo - Assistant Director of Greenmarket at GrowNYC - whose team oversees the 50+ farmers markets that GrowNYC operates throughout the five boroughs. 

I wanted to learn how Greenmarket, a staple of New York’s local food scene for over 40 years and the largest network of outdoor farmers markets in the US, has adapted in the epicenter of COVID-19 to remain operational. Below are some highlights:

Major Operational Changes

Courtesy of GrowNYC

Courtesy of GrowNYC

  • Greenmarkets have been deemed essential business and the vast majority of the 50 markets across the city remain open (some are seasonal markets that open soon).

  • A number of new rules went into effect quickly at markets, including: shoppers can no longer touch the produce; social distancing is enforced and waiting lines are used to limit the number of total shoppers allowed “in” to the market; workers must wear protective equipment.

  • Overall feedback from the majority of market consumers has been overwhelmingly positive and appreciative, as this New York Times piece from earlier in April details.

  • Per Carollo, GrowNYC has had to “dig deep” within the organization for additional staff members to help out at markets. They’re not currently accepting new volunteers due to onboarding requirements, but there are a number of volunteers already trained who will be especially needed as market season picks up heading into warmer months.

Courtesy of GrowNYC

Courtesy of GrowNYC

Shifts in Sales and Farmer Concerns

  • In the first couple weeks after stay-at-home orders were implemented, nearly 50 producers dropped out of their normal market participation - though many have since returned, according to Carollo.

  • Restaurant sales and labor challenges have been the leading concerns amongst farmers. Restaurant sales can account for 60% of a farm’s sales at Greenmarket’s flagship Union Square location.

  • Market sale numbers are not documented in detail by GrowNYC, but anecdotally the number of shoppers is down. However, shoppers who are making it out seem to be stocking up and purchasing more.

  • In terms of changing product mix, feedback from vendors is that grains, beans, and flours have been doing exceptionally well. Meat and dairy have also done well, though some producers have experienced challenges with processing facilities and keeping up with increased demand. On the other hand, produce sales seem to be suffering, though Carollo noted that it is still early in the season for local produce and we may see sales pick back up in May and June.

What Else GrowNYC/Greenmarket is Doing (hint: a lot)

Courtesy of GrowNYC

Courtesy of GrowNYC

  • To help combat the loss in sales from closed restaurant customers, Greenmarket launched a new Alternative Sales Channels Directory, which now has nearly half of their producers listed and includes a thorough list of ways to source from these farms. “[Even] if people aren’t comfortable going to the market, we are going to help them get the farm product they’re used to,” said Carollo.

  • Greenmarket works directly with Fellow Farmer as well, a software platform allowing buyers to pre-order from market producers, and they’re seeking to onboard more vendors ASAP.

  • GrowNYC also has their own app for the Union Square market - their flagship location with 80 producers - that provides real-time updates on who is at the market that day and where they’re located. App usage “has skyrocketed” - up 4x vs. pre-pandemic numbers.

  • Though not new, another crucial initiative within Greenmarket is their Fresh Food Box program, which “enables under-served communities to purchase fresh, healthy, and primarily regionally grown produce well below traditional retail prices.” Currently, five sites are still in operation where customers can purchase for $14-$15 an amount of food that would typically cost $20-$30 at a supermarket. These sites also accept SNAP/EBT and Health Bucks.

Other Takeaways

  • Despite existing tech solutions and partnerships, Carollo seemed to indicate that there’s always opportunity for additional support. “We operate markets, and we’re really good at operating markets, but we do need additional help” when it comes to tech.

  • After our recorded interview, I came back to a point Carollo made regarding the lack of fresh produce at markets during the winter and early spring months. Greenmarket puts an emphasis on seasonality in a lot of their marketing, which can conflict a bit with some of the value propositions used by indoor growers. Additionally, only 3 of the 250 or so farms listed on the Greenmarket website include the use of “greenhouse” or “hydroponic” in their descriptions. Did she believe there was an opportunity for more indoor growers? Yes, it turns out. Carollo told me Greenmarket “desperately” wants more leafy greens and fresh vegetables during winter months.


Are you a producer selling at farmers markets or through other local sales channels? 
We want to hear what your experience has been like during COVID-19.

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