The Daily Press has launched a series of interviews with essential workers who are working bravely and diligently to keep the Santa Monica community functioning.

Kym Otterstedt is the market coordinator for the Pico Farmers Market, which runs on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. in Virginia Avenue Park. Thanks to Kym and her hardworking team members, Santa Monica’s farmers markets have been able to adapt and remain open throughout the pandemic, providing a vital lifeline to farmers and a safe outdoor opportunity for community members to buy fresh food.

What happened to your job and to local Farmers markets when the pandemic broke out?

In Santa Monica we actually didn’t close markets and that was a crazy process. Our work went from coming to the market and making sure everything was set up to trying to visualize every entry and exit point, how we were going to administer social distancing, how we were going to monitor masks, and how we were going to gather enough people together to make this happen.

Because we had so much collaboration with other City departments and such an amazing team of market managers we were able to very quickly switch our operations into emergency mode and keep the markets going. We initially closed our smaller Pico and Main Street markets and pulled those into the Wednesday and Saturday Downtown markets. This was an amazing feat because many of the other markets in L.A. County were closed for quite some time. Now all four markets are back running.

What was the impact of the pandemic on market vendors?

It was very scary for them. We had some farmers who were older and chose not to participate during that initial time. Also, because many of the markets outside Santa Monica were closed for weeks or months, our ability to continue giving them an outlet to sell their produce was vital to their survival.

What does market day look like for you now?

We typically show up two to three hours prior to the market to get traffic directors, canopies, tents and then we are there two hours after the market to clean it all up. We are constantly walking the market to make sure everyone is wearing their mask and social distancing. We are also checking in with the farmers to see if they have any questions or issues that need to be resolved. We are required to have the farm stands be at least six to ten feet apart, so we are monitoring that. It’s an additional five, sometimes six, hours on top of what we would typically do.

Has the role of local markets changed during the pandemic?

I feel that prior to the pandemic a lot of people didn’t know about farmers markets or didn’t frequent farmers markets. Because this is an opportunity to get food in a safe outdoor environment, more people are coming to the market. We’ve gone from a weekend outing for some people to an absolutely vital part of what they need to do to sustain themselves.

One of the things we do at the Market is our CalFresh partnership, so people with EBT cards can get tokens to spend in the market like cash. This program has been part of our market for many years, but we are seeing a dramatic increase in the number of people using their EBT cards during this pandemic. We recognize that more people are applying for food stamp assistance and it has been a true lifeline for people to redeem their credit for fresh produce.

Why do you love working in Santa Monica?

I grew up in Santa Monica and moved to Arizona for several years where I had a nice career in parks and recreation, before coming home to be back close to family. One of the things I love about Santa Monica is that it’s a City that is always looking at itself to improve or change along with what is happening in our society and is not afraid to try new things that haven’t been tried before. I love the community, especially my Pico Market where people know each other, talk to each other and look out for each other.

What drives you to keep working hard through the challenges of this year?

There are a lot of things: the farmers who are so grateful and work so hard to provide food for people; the people who attend the farmers markets and are extremely grateful; our amazing team as we are working tirelessly to support each other; and our volunteers. We are utilizing sometimes twelve volunteers who show up in the middle of all this with smiles on their faces. They are not getting paid; they are not doing it for any other reason than they love this community and without them our small little team would never be able to do it.

Clara@smdp.com