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Kris Martins

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Georgia’s farmers have plenty of crops. The problem is who can buy them—and how.

Farming Atlanta COVID-19
Ashley Rodgers, owner of Rodgers Greens and Roots

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Ashley Rodgers had to have faith—even if it was the size of a mustard seed.

The owner of Rodgers Greens and Roots in Douglasville braced herself in mid-March as restaurants that for years had snatched up her crops—Miller Union and C. Ellet’s and St. Cecilia, to name a few—started to close their doors in rapid succession, to wait out the worst of COVID-19. At around the same time, the threat of the virus temporarily shut down the Peachtree Road Farmers Market in Buckhead, at which she typically earns about 75 percent of her income in early spring.

Rodgers did her best to adapt. First, she scrambled to set up an online ordering form to draw more of the public to the on-farm produce pickup she already had in place. Then, when the Peachtree Road Farmers Market reopened at the beginning of April after Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms deemed it an essential business, Rodgers started offering preorders for pickup at the market.

She was able to rebound from the initially steep loss of income. In April, her revenue was back to a level typical for that time of year. But Rodgers is still taking it day by day, unable to gauge the full effect the pandemic will have on her farm.

» Want to know where to buy fresh local produce from farmers?
See no. 4 in our list of 10 ways to help restaurants survive COVID-19.

“I’m not going to really feel the full brunt of what this could be doing to the business for another month, when I’m inundated with product and reaching out to everyone and they’re like, Well, we can only take about one-tenth, compared to what they’re used to ordering,” Rodgers says. “I haven’t navigated that yet.”

For local growers, spring typically means the reopening of farmers markets and the reemergence of booming restaurant demand. This year, however, spring was anything but a season of rebirth. Instead, it was a time for farmers—and the organizations designed to support them—to rethink nearly every aspect of what they do with their bounty. Among the biggest challenges to farmers posed by COVID-19, after the loss in volume of business from restaurants: how to safely provide fruits and vegetables both to existing customers and a new crop of buyers.

“We’re seeing shortages in supply chains all around the world and country, but there’s no shortage of local food.”

Holly Hollingsworth, executive director of Freedom Farmers Market at the Carter Center, knew her market would continue to play a critical role in feeding people and sustaining farms. For her, closing wasn’t an option, even as other metro Atlanta farmers markets delayed opening or temporarily stopped on-site sales. Attendance has been steady, even increasing, she says. “The last thing we needed to do was to see nobody purchasing all this food that had already been planted and grown and was ready to harvest,” Hollingsworth says.

She established precautions to help ensure safety: Freedom Farmers Market shoppers must either use their own hand sanitizer or wash their hands for 20 seconds at stations at the market’s entrance before entering, and Hollingsworth counts to make sure only 50 people are in the market at a time. Booths are more spaced out to help with distancing measures, and vendors must wash or sanitize their hands every hour.

One of the main reasons Katie Hayes, director of Community Farmers Market, kept the organization’s five locations open—though mostly for pickup, with limited walk-up sales—was because they are responsible for 25 percent of all food-stamp sales at farmers markets statewide. That’s especially important now, she says, because applications to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in Georgia have spiked in recent weeks. One of the locations, the Grant Park Farmers Market, resumed in-person shopping on April 26—though with fewer vendors, all of whom are required to wear masks.

“I think people are realizing the importance of local food and how much safer and more accessible it can be during this time,” Hayes says. “We’re seeing shortages in supply chains all around the world and country, but there’s no shortage of local food.”

There is, however, an extra burden placed on growers trying to fulfill the online orders offered by markets.

“There’s already not enough people wanting or willing to work on farms as it is, so farmers just in general are extremely busy, extremely efficient people,” Hollingsworth says. Taking online orders “is just adding another task onto what they already do.”

Eugene Cooke, a grower with Grow Where You Are in the West End, says he would have liked to see the organizations that urged farmers to move to online sales provide more resources to make the transition smoother—such as people to help prepare boxes and set up online shopping platforms. He also worries that shifting to online sales could end up separating farmers from buyers.

“If they want to switch online, do it. We think that’s great,” he says. “But if they want to switch online so that we don’t go to market, we don’t think that’s so great. Because for us as growers, being at the market representing our food is a crucial part of our sales strategy.”

Farming Atlanta COVID-19
Freedom Farmers Market shoppers are required to wash or sanitize their hands before entering, among other precautions.

Photograph by Ben Rollins

In addition to business challenges, the coronavirus also poses a more personal risk. Rodgers’s main concern is a common one, both among farms and the restaurants that had relied on them: the health of her workers.

“My biggest fear is if one of my employees tells me that they’re sick and then they do have” the virus, she says. “Morally, I’d have to shut down [the farm]. That’s just really scary.”

The virus is a major vulnerability for small farmers, because many of them don’t have the income to provide health insurance, says Alice Rolls, president and CEO of Georgia Organics. The nonprofit works with Kaiser Permanente to give farmers in certain areas free health insurance, but Rolls says it’s not enough. Hayes points out that farmers who sell to the public put their health at risk to provide food. “We have to be conscious of the fact that these are people at the front line,” she says.

Ilana Richards at Levity Farms in Alpharetta is facing a different set of pressures. She already expected an adjustment period after her daughter was born in October. Now, she’s balancing being a new mom with managing what feels like a new farm, considering all the changes she’s had to make.

Over the last few years, she had figured out how much of each crop she needed to grow throughout the year in order to make a business plan. Restaurant sales would have made up 75 to 85 percent of her business this year, had everything gone normally.

“Now, that’s all been thrown to the wind,” she says.

Though she still plans to make restaurant sales a long-term priority, Richards may change her planting strategy for the time being as she leans into other revenue streams, such as selling her produce to distributors who offer vegetable-box programs. Instead of primarily planting specialty crops for chefs, she’s considering focusing on root vegetables and hearty greens that can feed more people.

Still, she wants to make sure she supports chefs, many of whom are still selling food to-go to the public and providing meals to front-line workers and those in need.

At the same time, chefs want to do their part to support farmers.

8Arm chef Maricela Vega says restaurants should contact their growers to see how they can help. After a short stint offering to-go orders, 8Arm temporarily stopped service and launched its Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, offering one-time or subscription boxes of local farm products.

Vega already had spent a year planning the restaurant’s CSA after farmers asked if she would buy their extra produce. When the restaurant’s demand for produce dried up in March because of COVID-19, she launched the CSA early. By providing 150 boxes weekly filled with fruits, vegetables, and farm eggs (with add-on options such as artisan meats, cheeses, bread, coffee, soap, and Vega’s prized tamales), Vega is benefiting the growers who feel like family to her. “Some folks have even said that [money from CSA sales] has allowed them to pay some employees,” she says.

Though farmers can apply for loans and relief programs that address costs like payroll, it’s hard to say whether the available assistance options are enough, says Rolls of Georgia Organics.

“Just like [members of] the restaurant community say some restaurants will not survive this, some farms are not going to survive this,” she says.

Farming Atlanta COVID-19
Rodgers rebounded in April from an initial loss of business in March. But she’s not convinced the recovery will last.

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Georgia Organics’s Farmer Fund, a donation-based relief effort, might help ease growers’ burdens. Though the fund was originally created to help farmers during natural disasters, Georgia Organics expanded its purpose to include COVID-19 aid and partnered with other local food organizations to raise money during the pandemic. Since March, foundations and the public have donated over $125,000 to the Farmer Fund, says Kim Karris, executive director of Food Well Alliance, one of several organizations that teamed up to expand the fund to offer COVID-19 aid. Atlanta and statewide farmers soon can apply for $1,000 to $2,000 grants from the fund.

“It’s not necessarily a bailout,” Karris says. The farmers “are the ones with the solutions. We’re just helping them do what they do so well, which is pivot and innovate and grow food.”

Food Well Alliance is providing other resources to small metro Atlanta farms, by offering farming tools and equipment, delivering compost, and sending a small team of growers to help farmers prepare their land and plant crops.

“Those people that make up our communities and make our communities so unique will not survive if they’re not supported this year,” says Hayes, the Community Farmers Market executive director. “They need your support now more than ever. Because they might not exist without it.”

This article appears in our June 2020 issue.

10 ways to volunteer and give back in metro Atlanta this Thanksgiving season

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How to volunteer Thanksgiving Atlanta‘Tis the season for pumpkin pie, stuffing, and giving back. Whether you want to donate items, money, or your time, there are plenty of options to support people in need in the community on or near Thanksgiving. From delivering Thanksgiving meals to fostering a homeless dog, here are a few ways you can volunteer in metro Atlanta:

Deliver Thanksgiving meals to seniors
Bring Thanksgiving meals to nearly 500 seniors in central Fulton County with Meals on Wheels Atlanta, an organization that supports low-income and homebound seniors. You’ll pick up meals and help deliver them on Thanksgiving morning. Volunteers must register in advance here.

When: November 22, half-hour shifts from 8:30-10:30 a.m.
Where: 1705 Commerce Drive Northwest

Donate items or serve meals with MUST Ministries
Make toiletry kits with items like shampoo, toothpaste, and combs or donate clothes to MUST Ministries for Thanksgiving at the Elizabeth Inn campus in Marietta. The ministry says the biggest need this season is new socks and underwear for all ages. Though food service volunteer positions are filled for Thanksgiving, opportunities to serve at the Loaves and Fishes Community Kitchen before and after the holiday are available. You’ll provide, cook, and serve food at a time that works with your schedule. The community kitchen is open 365 days a year. Email lminns@mustministries.org if you plan to donate on Thanksgiving or to register for a time slot at the community kitchen.

When: Donate November 22; volunteer any day of the week.
Where: 55 Elizabeth Church Road, Marietta

Prepare meals with Smart Lunch, Smart Kid
About 1 million children in Georgia schools are eligible to receive free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch, meals they could go without during school breaks, according to Action Ministries. Volunteer to help this metro Atlanta nonprofit prepare lunches for the children at Peachtree Village Mobile Home Park before Thanksgiving. Action Ministries, a nonprofit that focuses on hunger relief, housing, and education, will then deliver the food to children in their neighborhoods. Sign up here.

When: November 19-21
Where: 1475 Peachtree Industrial Boulevard, Sugar Hill

Foster a pet for Home for the Pawlidays
Everyone should be able to spend Thanksgiving with someone, even Atlanta’s homeless dogs. Sign up to take in one of LifeLine Animal Project‘s 50 dogs for one week this Thanksgiving. LifeLine Animal Project, which works to end shelter euthanasia, will provide pet supplies, vet care, and support to volunteers.

When: November 15-23
Where: Fulton County Animal Services (860 Marietta Boulevard) and DeKalb County Animal Services (3280 Chamblee Dunwoody Road, Chamblee)

Volunteer for Thanks for Giving’s distribution
Volunteer to organize and pack boxes and help families in need load a Thanksgiving food box into their cars through the Center for Family Resources, a Cobb County-based nonprofit that helps the homeless and those in danger of becoming homeless. Rather than preparing and handing out meals on the holiday, this organization helps support families by giving them the ingredients they need to make a meal so that they can keep their own traditions and recipes alive. More information here.

When: November 16 from 8:30 a.m.-1 p.m. and 12:30-5:00 p.m. or November 17 from 8:30 a.m.-1:00 p.m.
Where: IAM Local Lodge 709, 1032 South Marietta Parkway Southeast, Marietta

Help with North Fulton Community Charities Thanksgiving Distribution
Help receive, prepare, and serve warm Thanksgiving meals to people in need in north Fulton County with NFCC, an organization that provides holiday assistance for those with financial needs. You can volunteer alone or with your family, and children aged 13-15 can volunteer alongside an adult. Sign up here.

When: November 16 from 4-7 p.m. (food receiving); November 17 from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. or 2-5 p.m. (food preparation); November 18 from 10:30 a.m-1 p.m. or 12:30-3 p.m. (food distribution)
Where: Roswell Town Center, 610 Holcomb Bridge Road, Suite 260, Roswell

Be a Hosea Helps Thanksgiving Dinner Volunteer
Take time out of Thanksgiving Day to serve others in the community through Hosea Feed The Hungry, which works to both spotlight the struggles of poverty and support those in need. The holiday dinners provide 20,000 meals to the community, and the nonprofit also provides free barber and beauty services, clothing, health care services, and employment assistance. You can volunteer to help with security, serve as an event guide, or to clean up and break down different areas.

When: November 22 from 6:30 a.m.-6 p.m., depending on shift
Where: Georgia World Congress Center, 285 Andrew Young International Boulevard Northwest

Participate in Lift Up’s Thanksgiving Food Drive
Provide Thanksgiving food donations to help feed 300 families in need. You can either complete a whole shopping list for one family or donate individual items. Lift Up, a nonprofit that helps homeless and low-income families in the metro Atlanta area, will continue to take items until November 17. If you’d rather give your time, the organization needs volunteers to sort, organize, and distribute the food baskets. More information here.

When: Accepting donations until 10 a.m. on Nov. 17; Food distribution is Nov. 17 from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Where: Drop off donations at Fulton County Oak Hill Center, 2805 Metropolitan Parkway Southwest

Help stock the Grace Community Food Pantry
Help end food hunger in Atlanta one shelf of food at a time. Unpack, sort, and stock food at the food pantry before Thanksgiving. Volunteers must be at least 16 years old to help without a chaperone.

When: November 20 from 11 a.m.-7 p.m. or November 21 8 a.m.-12 p.m.
Where: 4215 Wendell Drive

Sponsor a few tables at Atlanta Mission
If you want to give back but don’t have time to go somewhere, you can donate and sponsor anywhere from two (for $21.36) to 10 (for $106.80) Thanksgiving tables through Atlanta Mission, a Christian nonprofit ministry that serves metro Atlanta’s homeless. Or you can give your time before or after Thanksgiving with their ongoing projects. Find an opportunity here.

Hell Yeah Gluten Free: Alejandra Luaces wants to change your perception of a gluten-free bakery

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Hell Yeah Gluten Free
Alejandra Luaces, owner of Hell Yeah Gluten Free

Photograph courtesy of Alejandra Luaces

Alejandra Luaces sprinkles gluten-free flour over a wooden table in her home and drops a ball of chilled dough onto the surface. Dusting the top with more flour, she reaches for her rolling pin to create a smooth sheet of dough for an order of peach bourbon turnovers. She spoons peach bourbon jam made with peaches from Georgia’s Pearson Farm onto one half of each rectangular cutout and folds the other half over, stamping the edges with a fork to seal it.

It’s her first time using vegan butter to make the dish her Instagram audience adores, but she’s confident it’ll work. Experimentation is what drives Hell Yeah Gluten Free, Luaces’ at-home baking business that takes a community-centered, artistic approach to gluten-free baking.

Operating under a cottage food license, Luaces makes cakes, doughnuts, turnovers, and more out of her own home. Farm-to-table baking is what she calls it. Luaces relies on seasonal ingredients from local farmers to create eye-catching, gluten-free pastries that come in unique flavors—think turmeric-infused golden milk doughnuts and peach tarts with a pecan-hyssop (an herb in the mint family) crust and hyssop meringue. As such, Hell Yeah Gluten Free offers constantly rotating flavors rather than consistent staples, and the seasonality means you won’t get a strawberry cake in winter or a pumpkin pastry in summer. Some flavors can even phase out in weeks rather than months.

“Some people call them strange, some people call them ‘very specific,'” Luaces says. She likes to call her flavors “inspired.”

Hell Yeah Gluten Free
A box of doughnuts, including earl gray blueberry (light pink), dragon fruit, hibiscus, and yuzu (dark pink), and peach pear lavender (white)

Photograph courtesy of Alejandra Luaces

From 5 a.m. to sometimes past midnight, Luaces doesn’t just complete orders. She also manages her social media presence, snaps her own photographs, and fully manages her business, including the accounting. Though she jokes that she doesn’t sleep, she continues to crank out about 20-50 orders per week because she believes everyone should have the opportunity to indulge in something delicious, even if they have an allergy or sensitivity.

“Everyone can feel safe. That’s my big thing,” says Luaces, who eats gluten-free herself. “That’s why my stuff is good,” she says. “I care about eating it.”

The 29-year-old officially launched Hell Yeah Gluten Free in April after leaving her job as an engineer at Atlanta-based email marketing platform MailChimp. There, her coworkers were the taste-testers of multilayered cakes, various tarts, and cupcakes she learned to make from reading now grease-stained books, watching videos, and trial and error.

“People started just being like, ‘Why are you working here? You need to do something else,'” she recalls.

At first she ignored the comments, but as her love for baking grew, she found herself less passionate about going to work. She would wake up to bake, push through her office job, then come home only to start baking again. Eventually, she decided baking made her happy in a way that engineering just didn’t.

Hell Yeah Gluten Free
Cherry curd tart from Hell Yeah Gluten Free

Photograph courtesy of Alejandra Luaces

Luaces says her main challenge is convincing people that gluten-free baking isn’t a fad and that her product isn’t dry or bland just because it’s allergy-friendly.

“There are a lot of stuck mentalities that I have to fight against,” she says. “I’m trying to offer something that’s just as good. It’s just going to be a little different.”

Luaces says the innovative flavors and visual appeal of her pastries make her stand out in Atlanta.

“I make things for everyone that are made for sharing visually,” she says. (Her Instagram account currently has more than 3,500 followers.) She creates many of her products’ bright colors with natural dyes: turmeric for bright yellow, beets for pink, and matcha for green.

Hell Yeah Gluten Free
Sour blueberry lemonade poptarts from Hell Yeah Gluten Free

Photograph courtesy of Alejandra Luaces

As part of her commitment to offering a variety of “safe” foods, Luaces also offers vegan, nut- and dairy-free options that sometimes take her months to get just right. She plans to continue experimenting with creations like the vegan peach bourbon turnovers, which come out of the oven after 22 minutes with an even golden-brown top that sparkles with coarse sugar crystals.

Luaces is in the process of securing a storefront for Hell Yeah Gluten Free and launched a Kickstarter on September 19 to raise $20,000 for the space, equipment, and staff needed to get the bakery off the ground. She hit that goal in four days.

“My community really exceeded my expectations,” she says. She notes that additional contributions to the Kickstarter “will go straight to the bakery and will allow me to get a smaller loan.”

She hopes the storefront will also serve as a safe place for those who eat gluten-free. “You’re not going to get sick after eating here,” she says. “You can relax and be comfortable, and you can pick anything in the case.” And once the location is finalized, she’ll determine the menu items and focus on perfecting recipes with her team. But for now, she’ll continue to sell her gluten-free goods at local markets like 8Arm’s Chaka Khan Hacienda on September 30 and from where it all began—her home.

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