Seattle is home to a coordinated network of farmers markets, operated by three different nonprofit organizations, along with the iconic Pike Place Market, one of the largest market districts in the US. This network has benefited from investments, and partnerships with state and local agencies, including the City of Seattle, Public Health Seattle King County, and King County. However, inconsistent regulations, underdeveloped relationships, weak policies, and cumbersome bureaucratic processes at the City level have created obstacles for the operation of farmers markets in Seattle. Seattle’s markets have also faced challenges brought forth by rapid development, the centralized industrial food supply chain, and economic development practices that exclude or neglect BIPOC populations.
The Market Cities Program began working with Seattle Neighborhood Farmers Markets and the other Seattle partners, along with the two other pilot project cities: Pittsburgh, PA and Toronto, ON, in March 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. Covid-19 hit Seattle hard in the early days of the pandemic, and the City’s response was a complete shutdown of non-essential services, including farmers markets, despite the informal market operator network’s relatively strong relations with the City. The pandemic threw into stark relief the need to create a focused effort in Seattle to update code designations, streamline permitting, and lower the costs and uncertainties threatening nonprofit market operators and small vendors in the city.
Fundamental to Seattle’s Market Cities process was data collection and mapping of the city’s markets, the results of which revealed that farmers markets are unevenly distributed across Seattle and that days of operation are more frequent in neighborhoods with populations who are English-speaking, have higher levels of education, and earn greater incomes. This has contributed to markets being seen as “special events” rather than “essential services.” Another finding from the surveys was that most markets are at capacity, which has decreased opportunities for Black, immigrant, or minority-owned vendors to access the markets. Further, most markets don’t have secure tenure at their sites, making them extraordinarily vulnerable to the pressures of development, land-transfer, or the revocation of permits as experienced during the pandemic.
With the results of the Market Cities process, the local Seattle partners successfully advocated for the City to create and fund a position in the Office of Economic Development to support farmers markets in fall 2020. This position’s explicit role is to serve as a local government liaison with farmers markets as well as other events in the city, in order to streamline permitting and other approvals, making it easier for markets to operate. The City also passed a Statement of Legislative Intent that requires City departments to review existing and propose new legislation to strengthen farmers markets in the city. As part of this work, a racial equity analysis will be done, an updated definition for farmers markets will be formalized, and a “master permit” process and mechanism for markets will be developed.
As a result of their work together over the course of the pandemic, the Seattle network of farmers markets will revisit their cooperative agreement from 2015 to strengthen their ability to continue collaborating in the future—the benefits of which became clear after completing the Market Cities process.