Pop along to East Oxford Farmer’s & Community Market on Saturday morning and you’ll be faced with an array of colourful stalls featuring local traders, farmers and producers all selling their wares in the big school playground to a loyal clientele and adoring public.

It’s only when you look a bit closer that you can see the disparities, like a spot the difference puzzle, and notice that the queues are spaced well apart, the customers and traders are wearing face masks, the areas and routes between the stalls have been careful chalked with directions and distancing measures, and that there are a deluge of protected volunteers instructing customers on how to manoeuvre.

And then you remember that of course we are in the middle of a pandemic and without these stringent measures, East Oxford Farmers’ & Community Market wouldn’t be open.

The market is held every Saturday morning at East Oxford Primary School

And yet it is thriving. So why has the market taken off to such a degree when the country is in lockdown? Elise Benjamin from Oxford Farmers’ & Community Market says coronavirus has made people reexamine how they shop.

“it does make me laugh that the media is reporting that markets can now reopen because we never closed”

“For many people shopping in an outdoor market seems like a safer option than negotiating a busy indoor supermarket. And buying from us has re-educated people about the food they are buying, where it comes from and its advantages, as well as supporting local businesses and helping them stay afloat,” she says.

“The market has also changed people’s eating habits, so they might eat less meat, but the meat they do eat is better quality, and locally sourced, to great environmental standards.”

“A much younger demographic has been coming along to the market as well, so are numbers are stronger than they have ever been,” she adds.

However, Elise is keen to emphasise that this is only able to happen because of a strong team of volunteers making sure everyone, from the stall-holders to the customers, obey the strict lockdown guidelines, which the market is taking very seriously.

“We are experts with chalk these days,” Elise chuckles,” to guide people, and show them where and how to queue at the right distances. The traders have smaller tables to create enough space between the stalls. And Toad Distillery provided us with five litres of hand sanitiser to keep us going.

“The committee has had lots of meeting via Zoom to make sure we are adhering to all the conditions, and we have been working very hard to make sure the market can continue, because for many stall-holders it’s one of the only avenues left for them to sell their produce, while keeping everyone safe.”

So what are the procedures in place: “Only 40 customers are allowed into the market at any one time and we have volunteers at the gates to count them in and out, with separate queues marked out for the NHS and vulnerable groups,” Elise explains.

“The busier stalls – meat, veg, bread and beef, all have queues chalked up at each stall, so yes we have been busy.”

“Much of the food is prepackaged and if not, produce is handled with tongs. Payment is contactless because we wanted people to be able to shop, go to the cafe, meet their friends, and feel safe and secure,” she adds.

“The school has also given us a 50% rent reduction because at the beginning there were only 10 stalls, so not enough to cover our rent, and luckily we had a cushion to cover our running costs that will last a few months. So it’s been a challenge but we think we will survive.

“But the numbers have been growing and growing in the past few weeks, and we have gone from 10 stalls back up to capacity, so this weekend we are expecting about 17 stallholders and around 275 customers which is really good.”

This weekend also sees some first-time stallholders such as Vine wine joining stalwarts such as SESI Refill Station, North Aston Organics, Sandy Lane Organics, Crudges Cheese, The Mighty Pie Company and so many more.

So what is the market’s criteria: “It’s a very stringent selection process,” Elise explains “but basically produce and goods have to come from within a 30 mile radius, unless that’s impossible, such as wine production.”

So when did East Oxford Farmer’s & Community Market start up? “My husband Craig Simmons (Oxford’s Lord Mayor) began it in 2006 after doing extensive research. It first opened at the Asian Cultural Centre and then moved to East Oxford Primary School, which works really well because the school has kitchens we can use as a cafe, and a playground for overspill stalls and the necessary extra space we need now.

“Plus it’s right next to the council car park, so easy to access.”

Elise must be delighted then that the numbers have swelled so much? “Yes at peak times such as Christmas we may have 20-25 stalls, but it does make me laugh that the media are reporting that markets can now reopen because we never closed.

“As long as we only sold essentials, we were allowed to remain open, while following strict government guidelines and socially distancing measures, so we are the only Oxfordshire market that we know of to have stayed open.”

So look out for the profusion of cake, bread, meat, soap, pizza, coffee, macrame, wool, refills and takeaways this Saturday morning between 10am-1pm and join the resurgence and support for Oxford’s farmers markets.

Go to https://www.eastoxfordmarket.org.uk for more information or to become a member.

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