By Steve Davies

When Time magazine featured a large red apple with a bright sticker reading “Forget Organic. Eat Local” this was an indication of just how much momentum the local food movement has gained in the minds (and on the tables) of Americans. It also hinted at how farmers markets can play a bigger role in communities by helping people “go local”.

To rebuild agricultural systems that can provide people with fresh, local food, we need to reverse the long deterioration of urban-rural connections. For years, the ties between urban consumers and nearby farmers–so strong before World War II–slackened and fell apart. Teeming market streets disappeared, farms were swallowed up by subdivisions, and the vital networks of market gardens that many cities once relied on shrank and fell into obscurity. City dwellers lost access to the freshest food and its inherent health benefits, and small producers in the countryside became an endangered species. At the same time, the social connections and sense of place fostered by local farmers markets slowly dissipated.

Street markets like this one in Dubuque, Iowa were once crucial components of local food systems.

The culprits of this decline are familiar: the interstate highway system, the conversion of farmland to suburban sprawl, the shift from small family farms to large-scale agribusiness, and so on. These changes were not without benefits. Today we have a food distribution system in which most consumers no longer have to worry about shortages. We can have the food we want, when we want it. But oftentimes that food has traveled thousands of miles from the field to our kitchen (or takeout container). In the name of efficiency, low prices, and convenience, we have also created a system with huge new social inequities and disastrous consequences for public health, the environment, and local economies.

Many neighborhoods have become literal “food deserts” where fresh produce is nearly impossible to purchase, a big factor in the obesity epidemic and widening health disparities between low-income communities and affluent areas. Meanwhile, as supermarkets and shipping routes continue to expand, our food comes from farther away–consuming finite fossil fuels, increasing carbon emissions that cause global warming and undermining regional economies by forcing local farms out of business.

Addressing these problems is not a matter of scrapping the existing food system, but of achieving a better balance between efficiency on one hand and healthy urban-rural connections and wholesome diets on the other. Farmers markets are perhaps the most visible means to accomplish this goal. In Detroit, for example, there will soon be no supermarkets within the city limits, but the historic Eastern Market, part of a larger market district, remains. In a city of almost a million people, this wholesale and retail farmers market has an extraordinary opportunity–perhaps even a responsibility–to help fill the gap in nutrition and food access while continuing to provide a great gathering place for the city and the region.

Farmers markets are increasingly recognized as a way to better distribute healthy, locally-grown food. This is thanks in large part to the efforts of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation–a long-time supporter of local food systems–and the Ford Foundation, which has advanced the idea of markets as vehicles for social and economic change. During the past five years, PPS has worked with these foundations to promote research and demonstration projects showing how farmers markets can improve access to fresh produce and stimulate both rural economic growth and community development in urban neighborhoods, especially those undergoing demographic shifts.

These foundations’ investments, which include grant programs administered by PPS, are bearing fruit all over North America, as innovative farmers markets pursue new opportunities to rebuild local food systems that benefit urban and rural communities. Here’s a glimpse of where we see markets headed as they mature and ripen.

What roles can farmers markets play in rebuilding local food economies?

1. Create New Opportunities for On-site Food Production and Wholesaling

Historically, public markets distributed not just produce but a bounty of meat, poultry, eggs, fish, and other foods from local sources. But today, food production and distribution have become so centralized that few local dairies, poultry processors, or other facilities remain. Looking towards the future, there are many encouraging signs that the boom in farmers markets can also drive a resurgence of locally produced and processed foods, and that markets themselves can be focal points within this new distribution system. Many open-air farmers markets are adding facilities like shared-use kitchens and retail stores, and farmers are selling more value-added products like salsas, yogurt, or jams.

The Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet), which manages markets in southeast Ohio, operates a shared-use commercial kitchen that helps local growers and food entrepreneurs produce their recipes in large batches. The prepared foods can then be distributed to outlets throughout the region.

The Community Farm Alliance (CFA), a Kentucky non-profit, has facilitated the opening of a new cooperatively-owned distribution center (called “Grasshoppers”) in the inner city neighborhood of West Louisville, which has no supermarket. CFA says the center is aimed at “creating new local food businesses, selling only Kentucky grown and/or processed foods.” Plans for the wholesale facility include adding a retail produce store and an open-air farmers market in the future. Meanwhile, the facility makes it easier and more profitable for local producers to get their products to local restaurants and institutions. Both ACEnet and CFA received PPS grants funded by the Ford Foundation that helped advance these efforts.

In a corresponding trend, existing indoor markets are bringing in more farmers and local food products to cities. Eastern Market in Detroit is seeking new farmers; Pike Place Market in Seattle recently started an organic farmers market; and the new Ferry Plaza Marketplace in San Francisco is closely tied to its open-air farmers market. The most successful business days for indoor vendors at Ferry Plaza are Saturday and Tuesday, when the outdoor market is open. This all points to the convergence of seasonal open-air farmers markets and year-round indoor market facilities, with the allure of fresh local produce boosting overall demand for locally produced foods of all types.

2. Link Community Gardens and Urban Farms to Markets.

Believe it or not, America’s two most productive agricultural counties in the 1880s were Brooklyn and Queens. And all that produce didn’t just come from farmland untouched by urbanization. A lot of it was grown by city dwellers on garden plots, or “market gardens,” an important supplement to food shipped in from outlying farms.

Today, urban agriculture in Brooklyn is inching back. In the neighborhood of East New York, local community gardeners provide much-needed access to fresh food by selling their produce each week at a farmers market. And in Red Hook, on the other side of the borough, a non-profit called Added Value works with school-age volunteers to farm a 2.75-acre plot. Volunteers distribute the produce at markets held two days a week at different sites around the neighborhood. These two initiatives–both still growing and innovating–hint at the vast possibilities for small-scale agriculture to take hold again in urban settings. Other post-industrial cities around the country are experiencing similar rapid growth in urban and suburban farming, from Boston to Detroit to the Bay Area.

3. Use the Market as a Broader Distribution Point for Fresh Produce

In addition to its farm and market, Added Value runs a Community Supported Agriculture program, or CSA. CSAs have become an increasingly popular option for city dwellers who want a steady supply of local foods throughout the growing season. Participants pay a fixed price at the beginning of the season, then pick up a box of locally-grown produce at a designated location each week. The small farmers who produce for CSAs benefit from a steady, predictable flow of income. Farmers markets often serve as a kind of beachhead for CSAs: Once a customer becomes a regular at the market, the next step they take may be to join the CSA that the market farmers supply. At Added Value, customers pick up their CSA shares at its Saturday market.

Youth volunteers in Red Hook, Brooklyn sell locally-grown produce at one of Added Value’s markets.

The Southland Farmers’ Market Association, based in southern California, has put a twist on the basic CSA model. Its Market Basket program distributes shares of local produce like a CSA; the difference is that subscribers pick up the food at a wider variety of drop-off points, such as community centers, child-care facilities, or corporate offices. Not only does the program make it easier for consumers to participate, but because the Market Basket coordinators arrange to buy the produce right at a weekly farmers market, it is more convenient for the farmers too. They only have to go to one place–the market–where they can now reach both on-site customers and a network of CSA customers. Plus its fun for the customers to watch the baskets being stocked!

4. Make Connections Between Farms and New Partners Such as Hospitals and Schools

The health benefits of fresh food make farmers markets a natural fit for hospitals and other health facilities. Since 2003, more than 35 farmers markets have opened on or near national HMO Kaiser Permanente’s facilities, thanks to the pioneering efforts of local hospitals and vocal champions within Kaiser’s health care network. Today, more health facilities are making this connection. For patients, visitors, and hospital workers, getting produce from on-site farmers markets functions as a form of preventive medicine. For farmers, selling at hospitals means gaining new sales outlets and revenue streams (Kaiser is working to increase farmers’ sales to hospital food services as well). It’s just one example of how farmers can reach more customers by partnering with institutions.

Weighing options at a Kaiser Permanente market.

Schools provide farmers with a similar growth opportunity. In Louisville, Kentucky, the non-profit Community Farm Alliance holds one of its markets at a local middle school. Known as the Smoketown Market, it has spun off a year-round “Kids Café” that provides children with meals prepared fresh from local ingredients. And in Los Angeles, the Southland Farmers’ Market Association (the same group behind the Market Basket program), is currently leading a joint effort with the school district to develop farmers markets at public schools throughout the city, engaging youth in the market process. Funded by a PPS grant with support from the Ford Foundation, this initiative is seen as a possible model for school districts around the country. Markets can be gateways to even bigger partnerships between farmers and schools. Building a local food system, after all, is about getting produce from farm to table, and cafeteria tables can seat a lot of people.