Fresh, locally grown, nutritious food should be for everyone.
Sarah Steel, a single mother of three special-needs kids in Baltimore, hasn’t always been a farmers market regular. Family health challenges (two of her kids live with autism, the other struggles with birth defects) meant Steel couldn’t maintain a steady work schedule all the time.
Her family relied on SNAP benefits. “We ate a lot of ramen noodles. We ate hamburger whenever we could afford it, but we didn’t always have the money for meat,” says Steel.
But one afternoon in 2016, that all changed.
“I volunteer in my church, and I was working with another volunteer, Jill. We talked, and I told her how my family was struggling, especially with food,” says Steel. Jill, as it turned out, ran a local farmers market. She explained to Steel that she could not only use her SNAP benefits at the market, but her dollars would go twice as far thanks to a program, Maryland Market Money, that matched what she spent there, dollar for dollar.
For the past three years, Steel has bought much of her family’s food at the farmers market. “These days, we eat so many vegetables. Some of our favorites are greens, squash, and zucchini,” says Steel. “Don’t get me started about herbs. I will go on and on.”
She’s learned how to stretch her dollars even more by asking farmers about their seconds–those funny looking items that might be too small or misshapen to fetch full price–and scooping them up at a steep discount. “I’ve found bags of organic apples that might cost me up to $10 in the grocery store for as little as $1,” she says.
Who feels welcome?
Close your eyes and picture last weekend’s farmers market. In many places, the scene plays out like a caricature of itself: luxury cars, NPR totes, high-end strollers, freshly groomed dogs, kale (so much kale), a kombucha vendor, painfully earnest live music, an expensive vegan food truck. From a distance, many markets look like a club that admits only a specific demographic. It’s no mystery why, before her conversation with a farmers market manager, Sarah assumed that the whole scene wasn’t for her, that it was simply beyond her reach.
When we talk about creating more inclusive farmers markets, the conversation is dominated by one topic: money, and for obvious reasons. Yet there’s an even bigger roadblock when it comes to creating farmers markets that can serve a whole community, and it’s harder to quantify. It has to do with creating an atmosphere that feels inviting to many different groups, and that starts with sharing information, especially information about payment options.
In spite of the proliferation of markets nationwide that accept SNAP, WIC, and other benefits via Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards, and in spite of the many programs like Maryland Market Money, too many of the people who most need and want these programs most don’t know they exist. And for those who do know but hesitate to take advantage of the benefits, the stigma around SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, must be removed.
Getting the word out
Farm Truck 912 is the mobile arm of the Forsyth Farmers Market in Savannah, Georgia. “We started the truck as a way to bring the farmers market to people who couldn’t easily come to us, especially seniors with limited mobility,” says Forsyth Farmers Market executive director, Jeb Bush. “We thought we’d show up and there’d be a line around the block. That was our biggest mistake,” he says. The truck arrived to zero fanfare. Nobody shopped.
That first attempt was disappointing, but it was also a learning experience for Bush. “Now we understand we need a partner, a community champion, a church elder, the director of the community center, someone who is already well-known,” he explains. Now, Truck 912 is always preceded by strategic outreach, one-on-one, face-to-face interactions between potential shoppers and a trusted advisor.
In Madison, Wisconsin, the Westside Community Market relies heavily on printed materials to get the word out about their market, which vendors accept WIC and senior farmers market coupons in addition to SNAP, and what the incentives are. “We distribute bilingual brochures explaining everything in neighborhood centers, libraries, and churches. These are currently in Spanish and English, but we’re working on creating materials in Russian as well. In our community, that’s the next most commonly spoken language,” says market manager Benjamin Zimmerman.
“There are so many misconceptions about applying for SNAP. Sometimes all it takes is for people to realize they aren’t the only one. When we see someone telling a friend, ‘I got this $5 item for $2.50, it catches on,” says Bush, even in places where there is a reluctance at first. “I hear ‘I can’t bring myself to apply,’” says Bush. With time, information, and trust he’s seen entire communities come around. “Two years ago, the truck did $12K in sales. This year, it’s on track to do $30K.”
Making the farmers market affordable
The produce found at markets is, justifiably, expensive. Unlike the commodity produce on offer at grocery stores, farmers market produce is usually grown to organic standards or beyond by people who care more about the flavor of their food and stewardship of their land than maximizing profit at the expense of all other concerns. Small scale farming is labor intensive and risky, and even a brief conversation with a farmer will likely make clear why this kind of food costs what it costs.
Unfortunately, the fact that farmers aren’t price gouging doesn’t put more money into the pockets of low-income shoppers. But matching programs do. All over the country, more and more markets have put these programs into place, doubling the value of SNAP benefits. In some places, markets match up to $5, in other places, it’s up to $50 and more.
Sometimes people assume the money for these incentive programs comes in a lump sum from Uncle Sam, but that isn’t the case. “It’s not like the tooth fairy comes with cash for the farmers,” says Juliet Glass, external relations director for the Maryland Farmers Market Association.
“There’s a lot of hustling to get this money. Funding comes from legislators and local counties, and plenty of private fundraising. There may be some federal funding, but it’s by and large the blood and sweat of a small scrappy nonprofit figuring out how to pay for it,” says Glass.
She understands this better than most: these type of incentive programs started in her state in 2007. “County’s Crossroads Farmers Market in Takoma Park was home to the country’s very first matching program for low-income individuals,” says Glass.
How that came to pass is now the stuff of legend at Crossroads. The market’s current executive director Christie Balch, tells the story with pride. “One of our co-founders, John Hide, ran a bakery that was staffed with many Latina women. He noticed none of them shopped at the market. They told him it’s too expensive and they didn’t feel welcome,” says Balch. Together with another market founder, Gus Schumacher, he hatched the plan to match SNAP dollars and raised their first $7K from the National Watermelon Association.
“Early on, the USDA stepped in and said, ‘Hey, wait a minute, we don’t even know if you can do this,’” says Balch. Legend has it that Schumacher responded by asking what The Washington Post would have to say about the USDA trying to stop poor people from eating more fruits and vegetables. “They issued a waiver,” Balch reports.
Location, location, layout
After telling the world about the farmers market and that programs that make it affordable, there are still more stumbling blocks to inclusion. Where a market establishes itself and the way it’s laid out can be a deciding factor in who is able to shop there.
As a market director, Balch understands this well. “For folks with disabilities, we make the layout accessible for people with mobility issues. Things like, we’re on a street, there’s a curb so we don’t place a tent where you have to step up and down,” she says.
“Our public transportation is horrible,” says Bush of Forsyth market in Georgia. “We have one main bus line that comes to the park but runs only twice an hour,” he says. Nonetheless, his market is right on that bus route. This is part of the reason his market launched Farm Truck 912, which is one of many mobile farmers markets in America attempting to service so-called food deserts.
Mobile markets such as Farm Truck 912 often select stops outside of housing specifically for people with disabilities so that those who can’t get to or navigate a traditional farmers market can also enjoy shopping for local produce.
Other aspects of inclusivity for those disabilities include ample and nearby handicap parking spaces, freedom from tripping hazards, and a layout that accommodates wheelchairs.
“I thought it was just for white people. I passed by, but I never went in the market,” says Rosa Sanchez-Osegueda, a coordinator with Crossroads Community Food Network. Her entry point to the market was as a worker, not a shopper. “I got a call from a friend of mine at another nonprofit who told me they were looking for someone who was bilingual to work at the farmers market.”
That was 2009. Today, she shops the market and takes pride in being part of an organization that helps people from a diverse cross-section of the community apply for and receive benefits that make the farmers market a real option. “In my family, we eat more vegetables now. More greens. Before, I shopped at 7-Eleven,” she says.
Most people of color don’t get the opportunity to discover the farmers market by working there. Many market managers grapple with the question of how to make the market more diverse and welcoming to all.
At Crossroads in Takoma Park, Balch makes an ongoing effort to attract and retain a staff that reflects the community. She also seeks out farmers who are growing crops that speak to culturally specific needs. “We have several Central American farmers offering crops you can’t find elsewhere.” One example is hierba mora, a leafy green popular in El Salvador and often used in pupusas. “Usually, there’s a line for that before the market even opens,” says Balch.
In Savannah, at Forsyth market, Bush says there are several programs in place to cultivate diversity among shoppers and vendors alike. “We’re working with Saafon, an organization of black farmers, to identify black and brown growers to join the market. We have some, but the ratio is still off. I know if we had more diverse vendors, we’d have more diverse shoppers,” says Bush.
In addition, five times each year, Forsyth runs its A Taste of African Heritage cooking course. Over six weeks, students learn about ingredients, techniques, and recipes that draw from traditional African-American traditions. The program is free, and the curriculum is plant-based.
The future of farmers markets
Over the past decade, producer-only farmers markets have played a central role in the local food movement. But according to some experts, there’s now a new problem: over-saturation.
Some markets struggle with competition coming from every side: Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) memberships, high-tech food startups, traditional grocery stores carrying local food, “ugly produce” boxes, and more. In some circles, farmers markets are emblems of what is wrong with America today, including racism and income inequality. For farmers markets to remain vital and relevant, they must shed their air of privilege and exclusivity, and many are doing just that.
These community gathering places offer more than heirloom carrots and a dozen apple varieties. Sarah Steel, who considers her farmers market visits a highlight of the week, says the relationships she’s made there benefit her just as much as the food itself.
“Going to the farmers market isn’t a chore for us, it’s fun. We see our friends. The community aspect is everything. Farmers markets are the heartbeat of Baltimore,” she says.