It is common knowledge in Connecticut and throughout the country, even, that Westport emerged as a “hot spot” early in the coronavirus pandemic. Town officials closed schools, restricted gatherings, and issued strict orders for social distancing in early March, days before a wave of similar restrictions swept the rest of the state. Still, the idea that Westport Farmers’ Market (WFM) would close indefinitely was the farthest thing from the minds of executive director, Lori Cochran Dougall, and the WFM board of directors. In fact, the opposite is true. WFM rolled up its figurative sleeves and got to work envisioning a farmers’ market like no other at a time of greatest need.
“Local farmers and food producers are the people consumers trust in a crises like this,” said Lori Cochran Dougall, executive director of WFM. “We heard our customers requests to open early and provide an alternative to big box stores.”
After conferring with, and receiving the imprimatur of, local and state officials, WFM created an online pilot whereby people order and pick up safely at a designated spot and time. She approached Gilbertie’s Herbs and Garden Center, the location of the then-closed winter market, who agreed to lend WFM its parking lot for the pilot project.
The market opened on Thursday, April 2 with only eight vendors – all of whom agreed to follow strict standards, including creating interconnected websites, maintaining at least 10 feet distance from others, and wearing masks and gloves. Shoppers who wanted local access to some of their favorite farmers and food producers agreed also to a brand new system.
“We set up a central website portal where customers first select a time slot for picking up food, then shop from the sites of board-approved vendors,” said Cochran Dougall. “To make it work for everyone, we limit the hours of shopping from Sunday at 10 a.m. to Tuesday at 4 p.m. And we added a delivery component for those who don’t want to leave the house.”
WFM staff and volunteers assist in the safe and seamless implementation of the market on Thursdays by setting up stations at least 10 to 20 feet apart where shoppers wait until their name is called. All items ordered online are prepackaged by vendors and delivered to a central table where customers retrieve them and exit. There is no day-of shopping.
“We intentionally created probably the toughest and most rigid system around and realize not everyone is happy with it,” continued Cochran Dougall. “But we also know that we have a responsibility to our farmers, food producers, and communities to make the healthiest and safest local food available using a model that will survive should a second wave of the virus hit when state restrictions are relaxed. We’d rather be safe now than sorry later. It is important to note, that the financial profitability of this market is important. Farmers need to make money to survive. We have created a model that generates income in a short period of time while adhering to the strict guidelines. The financial stability of this model is incredibly important!”
Indeed, in its fourth week, WFM has gained the trust of state and local officials, as well as the community. “We are seeing more and more people ordering each week and we will gradually add vendors who agree to follow our strict procedures – farmers, especially, once they have spring crops ready. We hope someday to return to our roots on Imperial Ave. with a system that is safe and serves as much of the community as possible under these new and unusual circumstances.”
For more information about the new online pilot farmers’ market and delivery system, visit https://www.westportfarmersmarket.com/order/.