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Vermont farmers markets can have pandemic safety costs covered with funds from USDA grant program

A photo of vegetables in a bin under a white tent
Angela Evancie
VPR File
Many local farmers markets found they needed to purchase new signage, hand-washing stations, outdoor heaters and other items during the pandemic to keep patrons and employees safe from the virus. Now a federal program can help cover those costs.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has $650 million available to help farmers markets and specialty food producers cover the safety measure costs they've incurred during the pandemic.

The grants can range in size from $1,500 to $20,000. And USDA Undersecretary Jenny Moffitt says the agency especially wants to help small producers.

"We're actually very focused on trying to meet small employers with this funding, which is why we've made the application as streamlined as possible and as easy as possible, because we know how busy small employers are and how many different hats they're wearing," Moffitt said. "And so there's no minimum employees, and in fact, we're really gearing this money to work for small employers."

Moffitt says farmers markets, of which Vermont has many, are also eligible. And the grant program can cover a wide variety of items and measures.

"The program is designed to support a lot of the costs that producers, farmers markets have incurred because of the pandemic workplace safety responses," Moffitt said. "So it's a pretty broad range of things that would be eligible."

Moffitt said that measures workplaces implemented during the pandemic — personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies, sanitizers, hand-washing stations, even installing air filters and hanging new signage — are all eligible to be covered with grant funds.

Moffitt went on to say that "market pivots," those measures that farmers markets took to get their products to an online forum and continue to sell throughout the pandemic, can be covered, too, as well as costs incurred from vaccination clinics, COVID-19 testing or health care and treatment employees infected with COVID-19.

The deadline for applying for the USDA Pandemic Safety Response and Grant program is Nov. 22.

More from VPR: 'We Need This!': Arbor Farm Market Offers South Hero One-Stop-Shop Access To Local Produce

One local farmers market who has used USDA grant funding is the Capital City Farmers Market in Montpelier. Market manager Keri Pecor says early on, they used an online ordering model where people could pick up items from the farmers market. She said when they did reopen to in-person vendors and patrons, they incurred many costs to ensure customers’ safety.

"We were allowed to reopen after about a month, it was, you know, 'How do we buy all of these things that are now really expensive?' Hand sanitizer, for example, you couldn't even get it, and it was, you know, $100 a gallon!" Pecor said. "Caution tape, spray paint, signage to try to tell people which direction to go. It was a real shock. But thankfully, we were able to do it. We had a lot of added expenses, which thankfully, a lot of these, these USDA grants come in now."

Pecor said they applied for as many grants as they were eligible for.

"Thankfully, since 2019 or since early 2020, we have managed to bring in about $19,000 in various grants," she said.

Other costs that they incurred included setting up to work from home. Pecor said that could not have happened without grant funding.

"We were able to purchase a market laptop, a market cell phone, which provided a hotspot so that I could actually sit out in the middle of the woods and get some work done," she said. "That money really helped us upgrade our technology and get to a point where we could function during COVID."

And Pecor said that they'll apply soon for USDA grants to fund new and continuing costs for COVID safety at their market, like propane space heaters for the winter outdoor markets and storage space to keep them in.

"We have to get approval from the state for anything that we do on the lot, because it's a state-owned lot," she said. "So we just now got approval to use those stand-up propane heaters, and I was begging and begging, 'Please, we need some source of heat, whether it's an open flame open fire or some sort of propane heater just to like thaw our toes and fingers!' And finally we just got approved. So that's something that I will be applying for this USDA grant, in the hopes that we can get a couple of these space heaters."

As for whether these changes are sustainable, Pecor said if the market could get through 2020, it can do anything.

"And the market has really rebounded," she said. "Total sales for the market were I'd say almost 25% higher than any previous year. So I think the community really realized how important farmers markets are, and really came back out to support their farmers, which was really exciting to see."

Pecor added: "So, yeah, we got this."

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or tweet us@vprnet.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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