By Benjamin Fried
With the number of farmers markets in North America doubling to almost 4000 in the last ten years, it’s clear that fresh local foods are in high demand. But many communities have yet to benefit from this explosion in farmers markets. Indeed, even as the number of markets has mushroomed, so have the areas known as “food deserts”–communities where access to fresh, locally-grown produce is extremely limited. Food deserts are overwhelmingly concentrated in low-income areas, and their lack of access to good food is increasingly being blamed as one cause of the stark health problems–higher rates of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, and diminished childhood cognitive development–these communities suffer.
Farmers markets can flourish beyond affluent areas and bring improvements to people’s diets in communities that need fresh foods the most.
In the past, farmers markets have struggled in neighborhoods afflicted by food deserts, but new recipients of PPS public market grants–with support from the Ford Foundation–are developing ways to make these markets economically sustainable. From Camden to Oakland, they are demonstrating how farmers markets can flourish beyond affluent areas and bring improvements to people’s diets in communities that need fresh foods the most. These public markets are succeeding because, in addition to providing great food, they have built bottom-up support from local residents, offered local farmers valuable new outlets, and given communities great places to gather.
Camden, New Jersey: An Unlikely Mix of Art, Nutrition, and Downtown Development
The Camden Community Farmers’ Market takes a very hands-on approach to promoting health. Managed by the non-profit Camden Area Health Education Center (AHEC), the twice-weekly market always has a professional on site to advise people on nutrition, asthma, and other health concerns. AHEC often combines these services with other activities, as they did recently for their “Back to School Days.” The event provided children ages 3-10 with health screenings, arts and crafts tables, and coloring books. “We try to make it fun,” says AHEC’s Linda Boclair. “People need to learn about health, but it should be enjoyable too.”
AHEC and a coalition of 40 other community organizations launched the market eight years ago in response to Camden’s lack of access to fresh foods. The city had no supermarkets, so residents had few ways to benefit from government nutrition programs such as WIC (which distributes food vouchers to low-income women, infants and children) and the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (which supports low-income seniors). Today, vouchers account for sixty percent of sales at the market.
A big reason behind the market’s success has been its proximity to downtown Camden. Now, AHEC is using PPS’s grant to expand the market and move it to a better downtown location. The new site is much more visible — it sits at the corner of a major intersection near the city’s busiest transit hub. “A new light rail system–the Riverline–will stop right at the market,” notes Boclair. “We foresee attracting not only residents but commuters too.”
The new location will enable AHEC to accommodate more vendors and build on its partnership with the Walt Whitman Arts Center, which recruits local craftsmen and performers for the market. More partnerships are forming as government and business leaders welcome the expanded market as an integral part of downtown redevelopment. What began as a health initiative has provided common ground for the diverse groups with a stake in downtown. “We have people come to the table who wouldn’t normally sit next to each other,” says Boclair. “Everybody loves a farmers market.”
Louisville: Lively Places Sprout from Urban-Rural Partnerships
Ninety thousand people live in West Louisville, but with only four grocery stores in the area, residents of this primarily African American side of town rely on stores that stock mostly processed foods. “None of them carry anything that’s green and leafy,” says Deborah Webb, Executive Director of the non-profit Community Farm Alliance (CFA). In the last two years, CFA, based in rural Kentucky, has addressed this shortage by forging a variety of partnerships with grassroots community groups in West Louisville. Together CFA and its partners are creating a network of farmers markets to bring more nutritious foods to the neighborhood.
Two years ago, before launching the markets, CFA held a series of neighborhood meetings about food. “We asked people, ‘What are your food problems? How could markets help you? How could we create something different here?’” Webb recalls. Following these meetings, residents organized themselves into Farmers Market Committees, each with a few representatives from CFA. The committees then took charge of managing the new markets: Portland Market, the Rowan Street Co-op, and, in the second year of the program, Smoketown/Shelby Park Market.
The three markets function as a network, allowing producers to experiment and expand. Vendors at the Rowan Street Co-op, for instance, also sold at Portland Market the first year. The next year they devoted all their effort to building up their customer base at Rowan Street, and this year they are back at both markets because they have ramped up their production. “This is how farmers markets can work well, not in isolation,” notes Webb.
“You’ll have people tell you that without the Kids Café these kids wouldn’t eat.”
The markets are winning a loyal following by making food part of the broader overall public space experience. Smoketown Market, held at a middle school, entices people with outdoor cooking demonstrations that send aromas wafting through the windows of nearby public housing apartments. The demonstrations are an essential educational tool to encourage greater consumption of healthy foods, especially among younger residents. The market has also spun off a year-round “Kids Café” that provides children with a freshly prepared meal between lunch and dinner on Saturdays. “You’ll have people tell you that without the Kids Café these kids wouldn’t eat,” says Webb. “There is a real fondness for the farmers — a lot of hugs on Saturday.”
Oakland: Fruitvale Market Becomes a Healthy Habit
One key to success for any market is building a sufficient customer base to support the vendors that sell there. For the farmers market at Oakland’s Fruitvale Village, this means doing outreach through community health organizations and finding ways to make it easier for low-income families and seniors to buy at the market. “We have a really huge problem with childhood obesity and high rates of diabetes in the Latino community, and most of that is due to not eating enough fresh fruits and vegetables and not getting enough exercise,” says Marsha Murrington of the non-profit Unity Council, which manages the market. “So what we’re trying to do is get people to change their eating habits.”
“Bringing the farm fresh produce that is unique to the Latino and Asian community has made a big difference.”
Latino 5, a branch of California’s “5 A Day” nutrition advocacy program, supplied the Unity Council with recipe books and information about healthy eating. The Unity Council in turn worked with local health organizations La Clinica and the Native American Health Clinic to promote the market, which opened this summer. In addition, the Unity Council promotes the use of WIC vouchers and EBT (Electronic Balance Transfer, which acts like a debit card for food stamps) at the market, and uses its own program funds to print special currency, or scrip, that seniors and families can use like cash at the market.
When people started checking out the market, they could tell the product was superior to stores in the neighborhood. “Everything tastes better at the market,” says the Unity Council’s Tom Limon. “But it’s also an educational process. It took people a little while to figure out that this was actually coming straight from the farm, and then they started tasting how fresh everything is.” As customers became more familiar with the market, they developed a rapport with the vendors, inquiring about unfamiliar vegetables and asking the best way to prepare certain foods.
With about 1500 customers now eagerly awaiting the market each Sunday morning, the Unity Council plans to expand the market to Thursday afternoons as well. Murrington credits a lot of the market’s success to the Unity Council’s outreach to Latino and Asian farmers. “They are very familiar with what fruits and vegetables our community wants. It just works so much better to have farmers who are growing baby bok choy, or a special type of cilantro that is used in Mexican cooking. Bringing the farm fresh produce that is unique to the Latino and Asian community has made a big difference.”