Fresh Starts: A new model for permitting farmers markets & temporary events

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Shoppers at the Columbia City Farmers Market.

King County is home to over 40 farmers markets and nearly 3,000 temporary events, where people can buy locally grown fruits and vegetables, artisan cheeses, honey, fresh-baked bread, and many more nutritious items from area vendors.

Public Health supports local farmers and vendors in a number of ways. We promote initiatives that make farmers market produce more affordable for moms and babies. We’ve helped introduce more than 3,000 King County residents to farmers markets through the Fresh Bucks program. And, in addition to encouraging people to attend farmers markets, we are also charged with making sure that people who shop and eat at farmers markets and other temporary events don’t get sick.

That’s where our food safety program comes in.

Our food safety program – the same folks who work with restaurants and caterers to keep things like E. coli and salmonella at bay – also permits farmers market vendors. The program is a full-cost recovery program because it doesn’t receive any tax dollars or money from King County’s General Fund to do its work. Instead, the program is required to rely on fees from permits to cover the costs of providing food safety oversight.

In 2014, new fees were proposed to keep our program sustainable, but we soon realized these fees were untenable for most of our vendors. In an effort to address these concerns, we have worked to develop a new model. This process involved more than 20 in-person meetings with stakeholders, and we got a lot of feedback. Here’s what we heard, and how we incorporated your suggestions into the new model. These changes have been in effect since January 1, 2016.

You said: Public Health should foster access to health food.
We agree. Our food program focuses on food safety first, but we don’t want to deter vendors from selling healthy food in the process. With this in mind, we designed a permit category model based on the amount of food handling required for a given operation. Vendors can purchase permits for minimal food handling, moderate food handling, and complex food handling. The cost of these permits is directly related to the average amount of time our food safety team spends working with each category of permit, including a plan review, inspection, and travel. Permit fees also cover costs associated with the investigation of foodborne illness and providing emergency services, should either be needed.

How does this translate to greater access to healthy food? Under the previous model, vendors could purchase a cheaper permit if they were exclusively serving food from a pre-determined list of food items, such as processed and packaged foods. We heard from you that this might have encouraged vendors to choose to sell some not-so-healthy foods to reduce costs, and it probably discouraged innovation toward healthier options. The new model factors in the food program’s time without favoring certain foods over others.

You said: Public Health should incentivize good performance.

We hear you loud and clear. We created two kinds of permits that incentivize good performance. The first is a multiple event food permit that gets you five permits for the price of two. In real dollars, this means moderate food handling permitted vendors will be able to save $810 and complex food handling permitted vendors will be able to save $1050.

The second, for owners of multiple event permits with good performance, are eligible to purchase an unlimited event permit for the remainder of the calendar year. The unlimited event permit more than pays for itself after three events, but can be used as many times as the vendor wants.

You said: Public Health should provide more education.
Absolutely. Following Pierce County’s successful model, we created a Certified Booth Operator Class. The class is voluntary, but if you do it, you get credit and are able to purchase multiple or limited event permits. Since vendors will have extra food safety bona fides, we anticipate that they will require less time from the food program.

You said: Create flexibility for different kinds of events.
Okay! We created the “blanket permit,” a permit for unique, one-time events – like chili cook-offs or food tasting fairs, for example. This permit allows a single organization to assume responsibility for an event, regardless of the event’s structure or the number of vendors present. Under this permit, the permit-holder is billed at an hourly rate of $215.

The mission of the food program is to promote healthy people and healthy communities by reducing risk and advancing food safety. The food safety program has worked deliberately with stakeholders and partners to make the permit model as fair and as cost-effective as possible while ensuring the health and safety of King County residents, and we were able to reach a solution that was cost-saving for most vendors.

With many changes to the structure, we will be course-correcting as we go. Feel free to send your feedback to: EHS.FEES@kingcounty.gov. For more information about the new fee schedule, visit our website.