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Quarantine Prepping Comes to the Farmers’ Market, Measuredly


SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Kong Thao considered the chaos of the coronavirus as a farmer. “We’re treating it like a winter,” he said.

This meant that he expected his fruit and vegetable sales to be slower, at least for a while. For people to go out less, and to spend less money. And it wasn’t just the virus messing with the rhythms of the city’s markets, many of which were already closed for public safety. It was the freakishly persistent rain. Why would anyone be out and about today, unless they absolutely had to?

Compared to local supermarkets and warehouse clubs, cleared out by shoppers with carts full of quarantine supplies, the downtown Santa Monica Farmers Market seemed eerily calm on Saturday. But as Mr. Thao emerged from the back of his truck with a clipboard, flip flops slapping against the wet pavement, business was slowly picking up.

Chefs were there for long stems of flowering radish and yu choy with yellow blooms, all grown on Mr. Thao’s family farm.

The spicy flowers would be used as garnish, probably not on carefully tweezered plates with plenty of white space, but in packaged to-go boxes, sealed in paper bags and brought to diners’ front doors — many restaurants that stayed open this weekend were focused on delivery and takeout.

A couple buying strawberries at Harry’s Berries counted wads of cash for a pallet, then squirted sanitizer into each other’s palms, rubbing their hands frantically as they walked away. A woman in a blue face mask carried a bunch of pale pink sweet-pea blossoms, very close to her chest, protecting them from the rain.

But many shoppers seemed to ignore the new signs placed by the city, encouraging them to to exercise social distancing of at least six feet. They stood side by side over the produce, hugged each other in greeting, passed a phone around to share cute photos of a new baby.

Vendors were more cautious. Most wore gloves to handle the fruits and vegetables, or assigned a single employee to touch cash, credit cards and nothing else. A hand-washing station with hot water was set up at the end of the stalls, along with some auto-dispensing hand sanitizer.

At the Maggie’s Farm stand, Mike McMahon sold all of the greens prepackaged in plastic, so that no one had to touch the food at all.

Some shoppers arrived early because their local supermarkets had been cleaned out of the basics. Home cooks stocked up on dried beans — pintos, chickpeas, limas and black-eyed peas — at $9 for a two-pound bag.

Meredith Klein, a private chef, was relieved to find so many cardboard flats of eggs.

“It’s been so upsetting to see all these bare shelves,” she said. “Yesterday, it was like the apocalypse.”

The market had less foot traffic than usual, but before noon, it was clear that shoppers were quarantine prepping, and buying more. There was no more salmon. And the vendors at Peads and Barnett were almost out of pork. Gustavo Jimenez rummaged through his coolers for lamb. At 11 a.m., he only had two shoulder chops left, and he wondered why people were stocking up.

“Production is not slowing down,” he said, pacing in a cream-colored cowboy hat and a thick, puffy jacket. “At the farm, things are running like normal.” The idea of shoppers anxiously hoarding food unsettled him.

“People are thinking so far ahead of themselves,” Mr. Jimenez said. “But if they buy too much now, it might go to waste.”

Christine Pagtalunan, the market’s coordinator, couldn’t say for sure if it would return four days from now, as it usually does. For a few seniors on California’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, who paid with EBT cards, the market was their most reliable source for fresh food.

“We’ll post updates on Instagram,” Ms. Pagtalunan told the worried shoppers who stopped by her booth to ask, “Will the market still be around next week? What about the week after?”

In the meantime, a few new rules would remain in place: No more prepared foods, and no more sampling. If you wanted to know what a Kishu mandarin, or a Mara des Bois strawberry tasted like, you either had to imagine it, or buy it.

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