The Westwood Village Farmers’ Market, once a vibrant social scene for the Westwood community, has struggled to attract customers since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Farmers’ Market, the nonprofit that organizes the Westwood market, began implementing social distancing guidelines March 26. During the first few weeks of “safer at home” orders, only four out of the normal average of 32 vendors showed up at the market.
The market’s sales have taken a drastic hit and the market’s usual, lively atmosphere changed dramatically, said Aubrey Yarbrough, Farmer Mark’s community development manager.
“With lines, face masks, signage reminding customers to social distance, and no-touch purchasing systems, markets that used to feel carefree now feel serious,” Yarbrough said in an emailed statement.
Marketgoers are no longer allowed to hand-pick produce, and stalls have been taped off in accordance with the 6 feet social distancing rule. Other market amenities, such as food sampling, prepared foods and live music have been suspended.
Vilma Gutierrez, who runs a stall for Gutierrez Family Farms, said she has struggled to compensate for the lack of business.
“I’m working … a quarter more than what I used to,” Gutierrez said. “Emotionally, I’m trying to keep it together. Physically, I’m drained.”
Gutierrez and other vendors have explored different avenues, such as delivery services, to sell their produce but these efforts have also required longer working hours.
Arnett Farms set up a roadside stand near its warehouse in Torrance and now sells pick-up fruit boxes on its website, said Oscar Diaz, an Arnett Farms vendor.
The Westwood Village Improvement Association is determined to waive Farmer Mark’s weekly fees to relieve the financial pressure on vendors like Diaz and Gutierrez. Andrew Thomas, the WVIA executive director, said he will continue to monitor the market’s attendance and plans to re-evaluate its operations if customer traffic drops again.
As a mid-week market, the Westwood Farmers’ Market depends on sales to local workers, Thomas said. However, weekend markets, such as Santa Monica’s downtown farmers’ markets, continue to attract large crowds, he added.
“There are already large and popular weekend markets very close to us,” Thomas said in an emailed statement. “It would be difficult to create an established market in Westwood over the weekends.”
All weekend farmers’ markets in Santa Monica merged operations in mid-April, creating one large Saturday market where its downtown farmers’ market operates. As of May 15, around 24 farmers’ markets are open in Los Angeles County, according to the LA Times.
Despite the initial lull, the Westwood market has seen a gradual increase in customers and vendors over the past weeks, Yarbrough said.
“Farmers’ markets remain one of the few ways that Angelinos can support small businesses,” Yarbrough said.
Local supply chains have not experienced the shortages that continue to loom over supermarket chains, Yarbrough added.
Katie Melnick, a recent UCLA graduate, echoed Yarbrough’s remarks on the importance of supporting local farmers.
“(The stay-at-home order) has motivated me to go to the market for my fresh needs so I can avoid crowded grocery stores and support local farmers/businesses,” Melnick said.
Along with supporting local farmers, the market has given back to Westwood’s population of people experiencing homelessness.
Westwood Farmers’ Market partnered with the Salvation Army’s Westwood Transitional Village, which offers housing for families transitioning out of homelessness, in March, to deliver fresh produce to its residents, Yarbrough said.
The market has been soliciting donations to purchase local produce for residents, many of whom have lost their jobs. Over the past month, the market has donated $400 worth of produce to the Transitional Village every week, Yarbrough said.
Amy Okada, a fourth-year anthropology student, has suspended her trips to the Westwood Farmers’ Market in an attempt to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
“I usually just go to the actual market every week, but I wanted to decrease my …(time) outside, where it can tend to get more populated,” Okada said. “Since quarantine, I have not attended the Westwood market.”