Downtown Farmers’ Market Returns with New Twists

Market Square Farmers' Market, Knoxville, July 2017
Market Square Farmers’ Market, Mary Costa Plaza, Knoxville, May 2020

It was here, then it was there, now it is here and there. As has every organization, particularly those that attract large crowds of people, Nourish Knoxville‘s Market Square Farmers’ Market was forced to remake itself in a major way last spring as the pandemic began and information on the virus evolved constantly over the early months. The Market Square Farmers’ Market was forced to move to Mary Costa Plaza and adopt a list of new rules designed to weather the pandemic.

After working its way through a strange 2020, Nourish Knoxville is faced with another year of shifting scenarios and evolving situations. This year the market will begin the year as two markets. May 1st, the Market at Mary Costa Plaza (next to the Knoxville Civic Coliseum) will open at 9:00 am for the elderly and immunocompromised and from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm for everyone. May 5th, the Market Square Farmers’ Market returns to its name’s sake but will be concentrated around the stage on the north end of the square. It will operate from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm.

The group would love to return both markets to the square, but current requirements imposed by the city, such as separate dedicated entrances and exits, plus spacing, makes that impossible at this time. The increased outdoor dining on Market Square also limits the manner in which the market can be set up.

Market Square Farmers’ Market, Mary Costa Plaza, Knoxville, May 2020

The markets, which have always been different in size, will each be smaller this year than in years past. Almost 60 vendors will be present at the Saturday market, while 15 will be available at the Wednesday market. Venders at the Saturday market will include craft venders and there may be two to three at the Wednesday market. The Saturday market is contracted to Mary Costa Plaza through August 28. With increasing bookings at the Plaza, the new food court on Market Square and evolving pandemic regulations, locations after that date may be in flux.

Two popular programs will continue as Nourish Knoxville will offer SNAP & P-EBT processing & doubling (up to $20) at both markets through the Double Up Food Bucks Program. Also, the free Nourish Kids take-home activities will continue the second Saturday of the month for children ages 2 – 12, providing a unique activity, a fruit or vegetable sample, and $5 in Produce Bucks.

Both markets, as per the city, will have COVID-guidelines in effect. Mask wearing will be required, as will spacing between patrons. Capacity limits will also be in effect. You can find a complete list of guidelines here. As events return to the coliseum and auditorium, the Saturday market may have to forfeit some space to accommodate entrance to those facilities.

Market Square Farmers’ Market, Knoxville, September 2019

I spoke with Markets Manager Ellie Moore who, while acknowledging the difficulty involved with producing the market last year, said the staff was heartened that so many regular customers came to the new location and said that most people were very kind and supportive. She said when they opened last year the city had shut down all special events and there was little guidance available for how to make a market work.

The group looked at other markets across the country to learn what they were doing and quickly developed guidelines for the local market. Of the guidelines, she said, “It shifted through the year. It took a lot of work and research. We realized how resilient our staff was. Charlotte Tolly (Executive Director of Nourish Knoxville) and Kimberly Pettigrew (Local Food Initiative Director) worked at the market, even though that isn’t their job.” She said it was a great relief that their primary sponsors, Grayson Subaru and the Downtown Alliance continued to support the market.

Market Square Farmers’ Market, Knoxville, July 2017

The markets will continue to be smaller than pre-pandemic. She said in 2019 the market had about 80-90 vendors on Saturdays and about 40 on Wednesdays, whereas now those numbers will be more on the order of around 50 on Saturdays and 15-18 on Wednesdays. Craft vendors, some of whom returned in late October last year, will be included at each market.

She said the group is “thankful to dip our toes back into Market Square and they hope to return to their home full-time when circumstances allow.