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Farmers Market Vendors Worry Increased Fees Could Shutter Smaller Venues

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Joshua McNichols / KUOW
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King County Public Health wants to increase the fees it charges vendors who sell some kinds of food at public markets, including fresh cooked food and raw meats. Market organizers say the higher fees could eventually force some smaller markets to close.

Devra Gartenstein founded the Patty Pan Grill back in 1997. It’s a restaurant that operates almost exclusively in Farmers Markets around Seattle. I found Gartenstein peeling and cooking onions in her commercial kitchen in Shoreline. 

“My mission overall is to get people to eat more vegetables," she said. "You know very often, we will have people come by and they will say ‘Oh, I’ll have a beef tamale.’ "

"And I’ll say, 'Well do you want some vegetables with it?’"

"The vegetables are on the grill; they’re beautiful, they smell wonderful, and automatically, people will often say 'Oh, no no, I don’t need the vegetables.’"

"They’ll stop and they'll look a little puzzled and they'll say, ‘You know? Yeah, give me some of those vegetables.' And I feel like, yeah! That’s why we’re here!"

Patty Pan Grill operates at 14 farmers markets. Its permit fee would increase by $120 a year; Gartenstein would have to pay that fee 14 times, once for each different market. 

"The profit margins are really thin," she said. She says the proposed fee increases would force Patty Pan Grill to pull out of several of the smaller markets.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Farmers market managers like Gil Youenes and Judy Kirkhuff of the Seattle Farmers Market Association worry the fee increases could eventually cause smaller markets to close.", "fid": "96641", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201411/IMG_4026.JPG", "attribution": "Credit Joshua McNichols / KUOW"}]]

The fees apply only to food at risk of spoiling, like fresh cooked foods, dairy and meat. The cost of those products could be passed along to consumers. 

Michaele Blakeley of Growing Things Farm in Duvall said one of her 4-pound, locally-grown organic chickens could go from $26 to $30.

Lauren McCool of Hamma Hamma Oysters worried higher costs could render her shellfish financially inaccessible to non-wealthy people.

Fruit and vegetable farmers are not affected by the fee increases. But many farmers said when vendors like Patty Pan Grill leave, everyone loses customers.

Judy Kirkhuff is a farmers market organizer with the Seattle Farmers Market Association. She shares the view of many market organizers who attended a recent public meeting on the topic.

"We are afraid that our vendors, if they're forced to absorb such high rate increases, will cherry pick their markets, leaving the less-busy markets. Those markets will lose their customers because they lack the diversity of products to offer. Then they'll lose more vendors," Kirkhuff said, saying this could eventually force smaller markets to close.

Several attendees at the meeting criticized King County's $225 hourly rate for inspections and claimed market organizers perform safety inspections more frequently and efficiently than county representatives.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Becky Elias says her Food Safety division of King County Public Health must focus on its core mission: keeping food safe. Other goals, such as incubating developing businesses, would compromise her group's ability to balance their budget as required by the King County Council.", "fid": "96643", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201411/IMG_4020.JPG", "attribution": "Credit Joshua McNichols / KUOW"}]]Becky Elias works with King County Public Health’s food safety program. She doesn’t like increasing the fees, but she said her agency has to balance its budget and the fees reflect the true cost of keeping farmers market customers safe from food-borne illnesses.

"While we may love the farmers market, a food-borne illness does not discriminate," she said. "And so we see our work as a preventative effort to really support all of these avenues of food and community to thrive safely."

Elias is collecting comments on the permit fee increases through mid December and will include those responses in a presentation to the King County Board of Health on December 18. Comments may be made through a page devoted to the topic on King County's website.

The King County Board of Health, which includes elected officials and health professionals, will make its final decision on the fee increases early next year.