ST. PETERS, Mo. – You can still safely shop and eat local during COVID-19, says a University of Missouri Extension horticulturist.

“Farmers market managers across the state are working with advisers and local health departments to ensure the safety of their customers,” said Justin Keay, an extension horticulture specialist in the St. Louis area.

Missouri’s 240 farmers markets play a vital role in food security and local economies, Keay said. “Supporting local economies is more critical now than ever. Keeping food dollars in the local community is the best way to do this.”

Before working with MU Extension, Keay ran a vegetable farm, selling produce at multiple farmers markets and through a Community Supported Agriculture program. He understands the unique challenges Missouri’s small farmers face today. Working alongside other extension specialists, Keay uses his experience to support markets and shoppers.

“We’ve created resources to help address the issues with farmers markets and farmers’ safety,” Keay said. “Those farmer and public interactions can be made safe.”

Each market might look different in how they address local conditions, he explained. However, from discussions with market managers, he believes markets are doing everything they can to ensure a safe shopping experience.

“The Columbia Farmers Market is under a big pavilion,” Keay said as an example. “They’re taking their fire capacity, cutting it in half, and limiting how many people come into the market.” That promotes social distancing.

Keay also reassures Missourians that COVID-19 is not a foodborne illness. Individuals can purchase fresh quality produce from farmers markets across the state when taking necessary precautions.

“The Centers for Disease Control has stated there’s no evidence COVID-19 is spread by food or food packaging,” Keay said.

MU Extension has additionally provided platforms for farmers market vendors to collaborate and strengthen their current practices.

“One of my colleagues, Maria Rodriguez-Alcalá, has been hosting a webinar series for farmers market vendors to share their stories of how they are adapting to these challenges,” he said. “Those webinars are awesome because they allow farmers to bounce their ideas off each other.”

Another benefit to farmers markets is the value of local food security. MU Extension partnered with the National Association of Farmers Market Nutrition Programs’ MarketLink to educate market employees and farmers on how to accept electronic benefit transfer, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and other electronic payments.

“If we can get (more) farmers markets to accept SNAP and EBT, all of a sudden, you have a lot more access to food in the community,” Keay said.

When reflecting on the projects and resources his team has created thus far, Keay acknowledged none of it would have been possible without the help of industry partners and fellow specialists across the state.

“We’re working across disciplines and making connections that I think weren’t there before,” he said. “Really, this is making us a lot stronger of an organization, from the way I see it.”

For a full listing of farmers markets in your area, visit

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