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Online platform provides solution for farmers markets during social distancing
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Online platform provides solution for farmers markets during social distancing

RICHMOND–If necessity is the mother of invention, her name would be Lulu.

Lulus Local Food, a software platform for farmers and farmers markets to sell produce directly to the public, was launched in 2008 to create convenient online food hubs. As Virginians have adopted social distancing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, farmers markets are seeking ways to continue serving customers. Lulus already has them covered.

Lulus is a program of the nonprofit Virginia Foundation for Agriculture, Innovation and Rural Sustainability, in partnership with the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. Molly Harris, project manager, said her phone has not stopped ringing since social distancing became part of the national conversation March 13.

The online platform is uniquely designed to connect food to consumers with limited in-person interaction. Farmers can sell to multiple markets and food hubs using one account, and customers can shop from multiple farms on one website with one payment.

“It’s been really surreal,” Harris said, noting the past few weeks have been the busiest in the program’s 12-year existence. “But it’s wonderful to hear from farmers and farmers market managers in communities who are out to help.”

Using the software, market managers build a website where farmers can apply to join and list their products. Customers create an account, log in and shop online, buying directly from producers. The market manager promotes the site via social media and arranges distribution locations––tents and parking lots where customers can pick up their orders. No crowds. No stores. No cash or cards changing hands.

Food hubs and farmers markets are responsible for establishing the customer order fulfillment, supplies and logistics. While it takes additional effort, market and food hub managers said it’s worthwhile to continue connecting farms directly to customers.

“Farmers markets across the country are figuring out how to navigate these parameters,” Harris said. “I’m also getting calls from individual farms reaching out to neighboring farms to sell under one umbrella.”

For example, last week KelRae Farm in James City County––an area leading the state in confirmed COVID-19 cases––developed a site through Lulus Local Food, inviting neighboring farms to join their online food hub. They’re up and running at kelrae.luluslocalfood.com.

They join other food hubs currently using the software, including Richmond-based Fall Line Farms & Local Roots and Jo Daviess Local Foods in Hanover, Illinois.

Helping farmers and farmers markets sell product to consumers, especially in a time of economic uncertainty and health fears, is rewarding for Harris.

“It’s definitely been a tiny bright spot the past few days in all of this,” she said.

VA FAIRS staff is available to assist in creating a site. Learn more at luluslocalfood.com.

Media: Contact Julia Clark, VA FAIRS assistant director, at 804-290-1158

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