Shopping for food in a pandemic

A trip through two local farmers markets
Evan Neal (L) takes a payment for flowers from Walker Loucks at the Grant Park Farmers Market Sunday, March 29, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Evan Neal (L) takes a payment for flowers from Walker Loucks at the Grant Park Farmers Market Sunday, March 29, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Even during a pandemic when we’re under government orders to not tempt fate and venture out, when we’re being told to stay at home and avoid an indiscriminate virus , in the midst of it all, we still have to buy groceries.

For some of us that means going to a big-box store, where brave but worried stock people try to keep produce and meat bins filled; where cashiers, barely 6 feet away from customers, try to keep checkout lines running smoothly. Some of us might have groceries delivered, but leave the bags outside for a while, just in case the delivery person coughed as they set them on our doorsteps.

Then there are people like Tina Fernandez, 47, who still want to pick out lettuce and eggs on their own, but for whom the idea of a trip to a big-box grocery store fills them with dread.

“The grocery store is really nerve-wracking. There are so many people, I just try to get in and out,” Hernandez said.

She is one of the hundreds of Atlantans who, even under shelter-in-place orders, are still going to metro Atlanta farmers markets in search of fresh carrots, leafy greens and eggs. Yet, in many ways, they are also searching for a sense of normalcy, a taste of what the world was like just six weeks ago when it still seemed safe to venture out.

Walter Brown (C) orders fresh bread at the Carter Center Farmers Market Saturday, March 28, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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Farmers markets, like grocery stores, have been declared “essential” businesses — at least in Atlanta and Fulton county — and are allowed to operate during the COVID-19 crisis. Fernandez took advantage of that designation on March 28 as a regular at the Freedom Farmer’s Market at the Carter Center — one of a handful of open-air markets open on weekends. She’d just entered the market, after using one of two mandatory hand-washing stations the market had set up at the market entrance. Market manager Holly Hollingsworth hauled in 100 gallons of water in the car to fill two, giant, plastic jugs with spigots. Every entrant was supposed to wash their hands with liquid soap next to the jugs for 20 seconds under the streams of water.

Most did. Some walked right past.

“Sir!” “Sir!” Hollingsworth called to one man. “Please come wash your hands.”

With a frown on his face, the man circled back, stuck his hands under the water for about 5 seconds and walked off.

Fernandez said she was happy to see the sanitation.

“It makes me feel a little safer, and I’m more likely to come back,” she said.

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But the very thing that gave her comfort also underscored how odd the world had expeditiously become. Normally there would have been a thick crowd by 9:30 a.m., and nearly 20 vendors. On this day, there weren’t quite a dozen vendors. Their booths were spread out more than 10 feet apart. A few weeks ago they would have been almost shoulder to shoulder. Farmers had their dandelion greens, turnips or asparagus on tables where customers could see them, point to them, but not touch them.

“It has been really slow,” said Ivory Flemister, market manager for Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture. Her table had collard green flowers, collards and turnips. “I sell by samples, letting people taste things, and then they buy. But I can’t do samples.”

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That is another market ritual felled by the pandemic: no snacking or sampling food or drinks.

Shoppers were only being allowed in 50 at a time. Those waiting to get in stood 6 feet apart in a line. Some wore masks. Some wore gloves.

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Ulrica Wilson, 50, of Atlanta, wore neither. She usually rides her bike to the market on Saturday mornings. It’s a time to get some exercise and unwind. Not this day. She walked back to her car with a bag of green garlic, collards and dandelion greens, not scared, but aware of the risk of being around other people.

“This feels safer to me than a grocery store,” Wilson said. “They only have one person handling the food at each booth.”

As she spoke, she took a step backward to create a bit more space between her and another person standing about six feet away.

Amy Pearson helps her son Finn wash his hands before entering the Grant Park Farmers Market Sunday, March 29, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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Walter Brown lives near Candler Park and usually eats at nearby restaurants such as La Fonda Latina and Fellini’s Pizza. Now those restaurants are closed. In response his family is cooking more at home, so he’d come to the market for some spring greens and a few more items. The market is supposed to be a place for chatting with acquaintances or running into friends. Which is why Brown, 63, wore a mask. He didn’t trust himself not to get closer than 6 feet of other people, largely out of habit.

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“It’s a little hard to social distance,” Brown said.

That was apparent the following day, at the Grant Park Farmers Market. The crowd outside Eventide Brewing was fairly thick by 10 a.m. It was younger than the crowd at Freedom Market by a generation or two. Some of the same safety measures were in place at Grant Park as at Freedom: hand-washing stations, hand sanitizer, a notice about distancing. Some customers wore masks, and vendors wore gloves. There were personal shoppers available for people who didn’t want to brave the narrow aisles between some of the booths.

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But in many ways, it felt like a typical Sunday morning. Many people stood an arm’s length apart as they laughed and caught up. Some parents brought their toddlers and small children. Occasionally someone bumped into someone else as they angled for fresh flowers or North Georgia apples.

“Coming to market might be the only outing a person has that week,” said Kyle Karnuta, one of a few personal shoppers at the market.

She wore no mask. She repeatedly sanitized her bare hands as she went about filling orders. She said she wasn’t afraid or nervous.

“I trust that people out in this environment are also taking this seriously,” Karnuta said. “So, I’m aware, but not scared.”

Then she checked the customer’s handwritten list to make sure she had everything and made her way to the next aisle.