Buying fresh produce in a COVID-19 world

Buying fresh produce in a COVID-19 world

If you’d told us six weeks ago that a trip to the grocery store was going to be panic-inducing, we’d have raised our eyebrows. But the normalcy of six weeks ago is a distant memory. We are all searching for the best ways to keep ourselves and everyone around us safe and healthy, and to flatten the COVID-19 curve.  And many people are asking: is it safe to buy fresh produce? The resounding answer from the experts [FDA link] is: yes! Which is great news, to us and to farmers everywhere.

Fresh produce can be safely purchased, washed and eaten, and while it may take a little more effort and creativity to find local sources, there are still many ways to support local farms during this strange time. 

But if that resounding “yes” gets lost in the noise of conflicting information and safety concerns, farms – smaller, local farms especially – could be seriously threatened by a decrease in fresh produce sales on top of the other pandemic-related disruptions. Growing season is rapidly approaching, and it’s too soon to tell what COVID-19 will mean for Red Tomato’s network of growers and for farmers everywhere.  

The orchards in our network so far report that the trees are heading into bloom, taking cues from the weather rather than the virus. For the most part, fruit growers have been able to keep up with pruning and preparation for the season. Vegetable growers are making difficult decisions about what and how much to plant. Applications for H2A guest workers have been slowed by the pandemic, but the first crews are now beginning to arrive on Northeast farms. Some growers are working together on newly-complex travel logistics to get employees from the home countries, like Jamaica and Mexico, to the farms.  Many are also worried about whether their local crews will be available and able to work. All are concerned about keeping everyone safe and healthy once the season begins.  

On the market side, retail sales have been mostly steady, as stores have ramped up online-ordering, curb-side pick-up and delivery options.  Some of our growers report an increase in business at their farm stores, where they hear their customers say they prefer a smaller, more familiar local shopping experience.  With restaurants and schools closed, those sales have mostly disappeared, especially wrenching for farms that have spent decades building those farm-to table connections. Some schools are offering meal pick-up for students and a few restaurants are keeping carry-out open, but this sector is very hard hit. 

Farmers markets in some areas, like the Pawtucket, RI Winter Market and NYC Greenmarket, have found ways to remain open, but others have not, or have postponed opening until later in the summer. Food hubs like [Farm Fresh Rhode Island] are combining products from multiple farms to offer home delivery.  We’re seeing a burst of new online, home delivery and other creative initiatives to connect direct-market farms with their customers, and we’re working to help supply those where we can.

Red Tomato continues to plan for the coming season, expecting there will be both supply and demand for local produce.  Food is an essential part of the economy and daily life, and we see our work as a small but critical part of that. Our hearts and appreciation go out to those at the forefront of making sure we have good food to eat while we shelter at home:  farmers, farm workers, packers and warehouse workers, truck drivers, and especially right now, grocery workers. We have always known these people as essential and deserving of fair pay and recognition, and we’re glad to see one side effect of this hard time is that many others are now seeing that too.  

Right now, we simply don’t know what the future holds. The optimist in me knows that farmers are uniquely equipped for uncertainty, with the short-term adaptability and long-term persistence to weather tough times. The realist in me knows that even the most resilient businesses are depending on loyal communities to get them through this pandemic.

So back to the good news, and what we do know: fresh produce is safe to eat, and one important way to support local farms is to continue purchasing fruits and vegetables grown by them as much as we can. 

In a message of reassurance published on the FDA’s website early in the response to coronavirus, Frank Yiannas, Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response, reminded consumers to follow food safety guidelines and to wash and prepare fruits and vegetables as you would during any other non-apocalyptic time. “There are no clinically confirmed cases of COVID-19 linked to the consumption of fresh produce or food sold through traditional retail outlets. As consumers select their produce, adhering to food safety guidance is critical.” Here’s a refresher on that guidance:

  • Begin with clean hands. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water before (and after) preparation. Remember to dry with a clean towel and avoid touching potentially germy surfaces (i.e. the faucet) with your now clean hands. 
  • Wash all produce thoroughly under running water, including produce from grocery stores, farmers’ markets and home gardens. Firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers, can be scrubbed with a clean produce brush and running water.  Produce with lots of nooks and crannies (broccoli, leafy greens) can be soaked in clean water 1-2 minutes, and then rinsed.
  • Don’t use soap or any other kind of chemical cleaner, even as mild as dish soap, which risks leaving a residue. A thorough rinse of running water, as simple as it sounds, is still the recommended advice.
  • Even if you do not plan to eat the skin, it’s still important to wash produce so dirt and bacteria are not transferred to the flesh or your hands when peeling or cutting the surface.
  • After washing, dry produce with a clean cloth towel or paper towel to further reduce bacteria that may be present on the surface. Have a clean destination prepared before taking your produce out of the sink (i.e. a bowl or disinfected counter). 
  • Products labeled “washed”, “triple-washed” or “ready to eat” do not need to be washed again. 
  • When it’s time to prepare your produce for eating, again, begin with all the key players thoroughly cleaned (hands, cutting surface, utensils). Be especially careful with food that will be eaten raw; research indicates that cooking destroys the virus, but cooling and freezing do not.  If anyone else is sharing the dish with you, make sure they wash their hands before grabbing a bite.  

Experts rank food transmission very low on their list of concerns, so coupled with the rigorous precautions outlined above, we encourage you to view produce as no more risky than any other grocery store item. If, in spite of these assurances, you are still anxious about non-prepackaged foods, you can cook your produce for extra reassurance that any trace of virus has been killed. 

Along with keeping your immune system healthy and increasing your body’s ability to fight infections, fresh produce has consistently shown to be key to overall good health. As other non-optional lifestyle changes take a toll on even those who don’t catch the virus (stress, social isolation, lack of exercise), plenty of fruits and vegetables can help you stay healthy. If you’re not shopping as often as usual, go for shelf-stable choices: apples, cabbage, beets, potatoes, onions, carrots, and winter squash are all good choices. Spring greens, radishes, rhubarb and asparagus are hopefully just around the corner. 

So if you’ve been hesitant to add fresh fruit and veggies to your shopping list, here’s your push! Look for choices you can make to support your local farmers. And if you have loved ones or neighbors with factors keeping them from easily accessing grocery stores and relying on shelf-stable food instead, help them! Teach an elderly neighbor how to online grocery shop, or offer to pick up extra produce at the store and do a non-contact drop off. Search the internet for farms or organizations doing fresh produce pick-up/delivery in your area, like Farm Fresh RI’s Mobile Market Program.

We’ll get through this together. With your support, so will the farms we depend on for good local food.


Learn more about how to buy from farms near you during COVID-19 with updated resources from CISA.