There has been an amazing grassroots resurgence in public markets in the past 10 years – from weekend neighborhood farmers markets to new indoor central markets. Despite this growth, markets face a wide number of challenges – from shoe-string budgets to a variety of policy obstacles on the federal, state and local levels. New policies that support markets and connect their activities to the broader goals and needs of communities are starting to emerge.

The number of farmers markets alone in the US has nearly doubled in the last decade to an estimated 3,700, selling products ranging from local produce, meat and dairy items to crafts and other hand-made goods. Indoor public market halls are experiencing a similar sort of renaissance. Cities across the country are learning how markets can help spur downtown revitalization, provide local economic opportunities, and connect citizens with the best food and products a region has to offer.

Most farmers markets start at the community level – through grassroots, agricultural or faith-based organizations, downtown associations, chambers of commerce, or community food activists. Given this history, most markets have few resources from which to grow, yet they have enormous untapped potential – for farmers, customers, and communities.

In the recent past, farmers markets had only been supported by federal policy indirectly through the development of the Farmers Market Nutrition Program for qualified WIC recipients (funded at $19.8 million in FY 05) and the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program ($16.7 million in FY 03). These programs aim to increase the access to fresh, healthy foods for low-income mothers, children, and to senior citizens. As a result, many farmers and community members alike are more aware of the food needs in their communities.

Just this year however, federal support has shifted to a more direct role in supporting farmers markets. The Farmers’ Market Promotion Program (FMPP) through received funding of $1 million for FY 06, and will offer competitive grants for farmers markets and other types of farm direct retail outlets to develop and improve direct marketing. USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) is administering the program.

Policymakers and communities are also beginning to recognize how public markets can address broader community challenges in community and rural development; access to healthy foods; neighborhood and downtown revitalization; local food systems; agriculture; transit; and smart growth; to name a few. New supportive public and private policies will allow markets to connect these activities to the broader goals and needs of their communities, while in turn helping to make their operations more economically sustainable.

Through our three-year, $3 million grant initiative to support farmers markets, Project for Public Spaces and its supporters, the W.K. Kellogg and Ford Foundations, are working to spur innovation at the local level through our farmers market grant program. The demand for these grants is enormous – for the 2006 grant cycle, over 260 applications from individual farmers markets were received. Because of this incredible demand, this initiative seeks at the same time to develop more supportive state and federal policies for public markets and farmers markets and to work to create ongoing sources of funding for these important community institutions.

Tagged with →