Local farmers get no help from city of Plano: New food code continues to restrict traditional farmers markets
Kelsey Kruzich / Staff Photo: The food code recently adopted by the Plano City Council places restrictions on the operation of farmers markets that many local farmers say are unreasonable. The farmers want to operate under restrictions such as those in McKinney, which has an award-winning farmers market.
The city of Plano's new food code still does not allow for traditional farmers markets to operate in the city, something potential market organizers hoped to see change.
The revised code, which the city council passed unanimously at Monday's meeting, places restrictions on markets that many in attendance said are overbearing. While a special committee is being formed to investigate whether restrictions should be eased, there is no timeline for when the committee will issue its recommendations.
The action came after more than two years of work by the city's health department, as well as nearly a year of work by organic farmer Kari Gates, who hopes to open a farmers market at Fairview Farms. Gates said the action taken by the council was puzzling, and will prevent markets from operating in the city if it is not changed.
"They have been drafting this health ordinance for two-and-a-half years, why couldn't they have just waited another two weeks to get more information before they voted on it," Gates said. "I don't understand what the rush was all the sudden."
One major issue Gates and her supporters are trying to get addressed is the requirement that farmers markets are only allowed to sell produce. If vendors wanted to sell items such as meat and cheese, staples at McKinney's award-winning Chestnut Square Farmers Market, permanent refrigeration would be required on site.
"Our submitted proposal of a vendor list was reduced by over 50 percent due to these restrictions, and therefore our business model was not economically sustainable," said Scott Merner, the manager for the proposed market at Fairview Farms.
Merner added that installing permanent refrigeration for a market that would only be open five hours a week would be very cost inefficient.
Meat vendors already have refrigerated trucks, Gates said, and the city's ordinance would require the meat to be removed from the vendor's truck and transported to the on-site freezer, a step she believes is unnecessary and burdensome. Forcing all meat vendors to sell from the same freezer, rather than being spread out throughout the market, also disrupts the flow of the market and is not consumer friendly, Gates said.
The lack of other products would also make the market less attractive to Plano residents, said Alison Holland, who grew up going to farmers markets and wishes her children could have the same experience.
"These markets had something else that I would love to see in a Plano farmers market -- diversity and one-stop shopping," Holland told the council. "I was able to buy my chicken, cheese, eggs, produce and canned goods, while also meeting the farmers and knowing the origin of the food that I ate."
Brian Collins, the city's environmental health director, said his main concern is food safety, and that is why the refrigeration requirement was added to the ordinance. He said the ordinance is the culmination of years of local and national research into food safety.
"This ordinance before you tonight adopts and implements proven foodborne illness preventive measures and controls," Collins said. "In the event a foodborne illness occurs, the ordinance ensures record-keeping that is good and is accountable so we have built-in trace-back opportunities."
Environmental Health Manager Geoffrey Heinicke said he doesn't believe the ordinance is too restrictive and said other groups could successfully operate under the restrictions, although he declined to give specifics or mention where they would operate.
Several speakers at the meeting urged the council to adopt regulations similar to those in McKinney and Frisco. However, Collins, as well as City Manager Bruce Glasscock, said the city of Plano is acting as a leader in the area of farmers market regulations, as it has in the past with other ordinances. Collins said other cities are waiting to see what Plano does before taking action.
Gates was unimpressed with Collins' and Glassock's responses, saying while she can respect Plano's desire to "do its own thing, the city also needs to do what is reasonable." She said that it is unbelievable that residents in a city the size of Plano are required to drive to a neighboring city to visit a farmers market because of the government red tape.
"This is overregulation at its finest," she said.
Even though they passed the ordinance restricting farmers markets, several council members commented that they were supportive of Gates' cause.
Mayor Phil Dyer said there were many things he didn't understand about the ordinance, but admitted he was not an expert in ordinance writing. He urged the formation of the committee, which he appointed Councilman Pat Miner to lead.
Mayor Pro Tem Lissa Smith agreed with Dyer, expressing doubt that the ordinance needed to be so restrictive while urging the committee recommendations to come in a timely manner.
"It just seems to me that we are at a point where we are so restrictive that this group is telling us that they can't be successful," she said. "Is there some way for us to meet in the middle?"
Councilman Jim Duggan said he supported farmers markets, but that the city may be overreaching its bounds.
"I think we are making this awfully complicated," he said in a comment that drew applause from much of the audience. "... I am all for small business and less regulation. Getting mechanical refrigeration for a five-hour afternoon on Saturday seems ridiculous to me. If we have state ordinances and regulations, why don't we just let them comply with those?"
The city council's next meeting is scheduled for Dec. 10, but it is not known if the review committee will have recommendations at that time.