On Tuesday, a bill was introduced to the St. Louis County Council that would make significant changes to the regulations governing St. Louis County's farmers' markets. The council did not vote on the measure at Tuesday's meeting but announced instead that it will hold a "Committee of the Whole" next month to discuss the matter further.
Deb Henderson, the market master for the Clayton Farmers' Market, was among those who spoke about the proposed legislation at Tuesday's meeting. Gut Check caught up with her yesterday to discuss her concerns. (Gut Check has also reached to Councilman Mike O'Mara, who introduced the bill, but we've yet to hear back.)
As Henderson sees it, cities and counties are struggling to deal with the rapid growth in the number and size of farmers' markets:
"Where cities and counties run into problems," she says is that "they want to apply previous coding, permitting and fee systems to regulate the farmers' market.
"It doesn't work. These systems are set up for other types of food establishments."
Henderson explains that Clayton and other farmers' markets do follow guidelines for safe food handling and other matters. What's more, she has been in frequent communication with county officials on how to go about regulating farmers' markets. However, she learned about the current bill only when a grocery-store employee forwarded the information to her.
"They didn't send me a copy," of the bill, she says. "They sent this to the grocery stores first. To me, that's kind of telling."
The crux of the problem, she states, is that "if [the county] rewrites a definition of of a farmers' market and turns it into a food establishment, then it can be regulated to such a degree that no longer easy [for the market] to be a viable entity."
As an example, she points to the idea of charging a fee to permit farmers' market vendors to sample their foods. A vendor, she says, would pay "the equivalent of of over $900 [over the course of the farmers' market season] just to sample their foods."
In contrast, she argues, "A grocery store is not charged an extra fee for food sampling. They pay their one fee for the year based upon volume of sales."
Ultimately, Henderson believes that counties looking to make money through the fees charged to farmers' market vendors are being short-sighted: "The counties and cities need to look at the longer-term benefits of what a farmers' market brings to the area. [There are] stats that prove that a farmers' market improves the economy of a region, that it brings approximately 80 cents on the dollar that is then re-spent in that region."
Stay tuned to Gut Check for more on this issue in the coming weeks.