Mourning a loss of diversity at Salt Lake City’s Downtown Farmers Market

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Zara Ahmed coats the "The Wasatch" bread and vegetables with melted raclette cheese in the Raclette Machine food truck in June 2019.

It marked the first time in three years that Zara Ahmed was not working as a food vendor at Salt Lake City’s Downtown Farmers Market.

With the new COVID-19 restrictions — which eliminated prepared foods and arts and crafts vendors — the co-owner of the Raclette Machine food truck was now just a regular patron at the Saturday event.

On opening day, Ahmed and partner Abby Pfunder expected to have some bittersweet feelings. But something else made Ahmed’s heart sink that day: The elimination of the Food Fairway also had eliminated most of the entrepreneurs of color.

“Pioneer Park felt the most whitewashed I’ve ever experienced,” Ahmed said. “Just like that, we are gone from one of the city’s most powerful venues for budding small businesses.”

Ahmed, who is Pakistani American and identifies as queer and nonbinary, ticked off a list of other minority-owned businesses that were eliminated: Makaya Haitian Caters, La Cubana, Thai Chef to Go, Royal Dosa, Alual’s Sudanese, Spice Kitchen Incubator and Jamaica’s Kitchen.

While the market was forced to cut back to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the loss of many minority-owned businesses comes at the same time people across the country — and in Utah — are protesting police treatment of Black people and systemic racism. It’s also a time when many of their allies are eager to support minority-owned business.

The Utah Arts Alliance has stepped up to help the artisans who were cut from the event. It is sponsoring an Art & Craft Market at The Gateway on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Some food vendors were able to adapt, creating packaged items that allow them to keep their booth at the market. Sweet Lake Biscuits and Limeade, for example, is selling bags of frozen, reheatable biscuits and bottled mint limeade. Argentina’s Best is selling take-and-bake empanadas.

But pivoting — especially for owners who are low income or have language or technology barriers — can be difficult, said Ahmed, and organizers could do more to help those vendors.

Alison Einerson, executive director of Urban Food Connections, the nonprofit that operates the Downtown and Winter markets, also is frustrated about the loss of the ethnic food vendors.

“The mission of the Food Fairway has always been diversity and unique food from other countries,” she said. “That is where we do our best work.”

Last season, the market had vendors from Sudan, Jamaica, Haiti, Pakistan, India, Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, the Philippines and Iraq. “We have been an incubator for people from all over the world to share their cuisines and cultures with our patrons,” Einerson said. “It’s heartbreaking not to be able to do this in 2020.”

The market was required to follow regulations from the Salt Lake County Health Department and guidelines from the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food to keep vendors and patrons safe and prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (See the new rules below.)

The market mix is exacerbated because most Utah farmers are white and inherited land from their pioneer ancestors, Einerson explained. “I can’t erase that part of Utah history.”

Even so, she pointed out, 12% of the vendors participating in the scaled-down market this year are people of color. They include Tony and Tina Guerra’s Farm in Santaquin; Fusako Tomiyama of Asian & Heirlooms in Millcreek; and Leon Wilson of Wilson’s Peaches in Roy.

There are several minority vendors, too. In addition to Argentina’s Best, the market features James’ Sweet Potato Pies, Laziz Kitchen, Rico Brand, Salsa Del Diablo, Tequeños Factory empanadas and Van Kwartel Caribbean sauces and marinades.

Without the farmers market, refugee food business are “feeling a huge hit,” in both income and morale, said Kate Idzorek, program manager for Salt Lake City’s Spice Kitchen Incubator, part of the International Rescue Committee.

“They are so excited to grow their businesses,” she said. “It’s hard when you feel like you are on the right track and then have to completely stop.”

Many have tried to add packaged products that can be sold at the market, she said, but that involves more than just putting food in a bag. Getting state permits, creating labels and pricing are all part of the process.

And while it works for some ethnic businesses, the model isn’t always successful. Patrons usually prefer “the full experience” that the refugee food booths offer.

“Purchasing a packaged item to take home,” Idzorek said, “does not provide the same level of intrigue.”

Spice Kitchen entrepreneurs may be faring better than other minority-owned business that were left out of the farmers market, Idzorek added, because they can participate in two International Rescue Committee food programs: the Spice to Go pickup meals and a community food-box delivery service.

As for the other minority food businesses, Ahmed with Raclette Machine hopes other vendors, sponsors and visitors will step up and address the inequities before the market ends in October.

If that happens, though, Ahmed won’t be part of it.

Last week, Ahmed and Pfunder announced they would be closing their 4-year-old melted-cheese food truck at the end of June and moving to California to be closer to family.

The last day to enjoy a “sando” or another of their meat and scraped Alpine cheese meals in Salt Lake City is Friday from 5 to 8 p.m. during a benefit for LGBTQ+ business owners at Brownies! Brownies! Brownies!, 1751 S. 1100 East; and Sunday from noon to 7 p.m. at Fisher Brewing, 320 W. 800 South.

Farmers Market rules

Many people who attended the initial days of Salt Lake City’s Downtown Farmers Market at Pioneer Park were unaware of the new rules required to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Many brought pets, forgot face coverings or lingered too long.

Here are the rules for the 2020 season, which continues every Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. through Oct. 24.

• Do not attend the market if you are sick.

• Shop quickly and efficiently. Do not linger or gather.

• Look for signs that show where to line up at booths.

• Maintain 6 feet of social distancing between other customers and vendors.

• Wear a mask or face covering (recommended).

• Limit your visit to one shopper per household.

• When possible, use a credit card, debit card, cashless mobile app or exact change.

• Keep pets home — with the exception of service animals that are trained to respond to a specific medical condition.

• Observe one-way traffic flow (signs and arrows are posted).

• Reusable bags are allowed.

• Customers may not handle any products or self-serve.

• SNAP exchange and Double Up Food Bucks are available.