Better Farmers Markets

"Fresh, farm-made jams and sauces," trumpets a small, hand-lettered sign hanging over a veritable cornucopia of ruby-red salsas, assorted dips, and strawberry preserves. It is the beginning of farmers market season in Washington, D.C., where modest stalls bearing fruits, vegetables, and pastries seem to sprout overnight and take root in small corners of the city. They always attract crowds, most often young, urban professionals. The open-air markets have become a familiar part of the summer landscape, but the shoppers most often browsing the stalls reflect just a tiny, wealthy segment of the city. Why isn't everyone shopping here?

In 2005, researchers posed a simple question to  low-income families using food stamps: What kept them from fully utilizing farmers markets? The response came back loud and clear: awareness, price, and convenience. Farmers markets have been touted as the next great hope in stemming the obesity epidemic by providing fresh fruits and vegetables to those neighborhoods that are underserved by grocery stores but often full of fast-food restaurants. However, with all the pushes to make farmers markets more accessible -- like allowing food stamps and partnering with Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) programs -- the core issue has still not been addressed: Healthy foods need to be convenient and accessible as well as affordable.

One of the major influences on how farmers markets function is a 1999 report called "Hot Peppers and Parking Lot Peaches: Evaluating Farmer's Markets in Low Income Communities." In it, Andy Fisher, on behalf of the Community Food Security Coalition, provides concrete steps for both market organizers and policy-makers to consider when trying to serve low-income populations. Some of his suggestions were heeded -- the United States Department of Agriculture standardization and WIC cooperation were instituted in 1992 and greatly expanded in 2009. However, some basic steps are still in need of a champion. Fisher made three very important points yet to be addressed: Markets must tailor their offerings to "focus on basic food at affordable prices"; should pay attention to the availability of transportation and the market's location; and must involve the community to provide a sense of ownership with the market.

FRESHFARM Markets are some of the most visible farmers market operators in Washington, D.C., and the surrounding area. A success story by most measures, FRESHFARM grew from one small market in Dupont Circle to 12 markets a week in the D.C. area. Much is made of the market's prominently displayed booths, which accept food stamps and convert them into market currency, and the double-dollars initiative to increase spending power for those receiving food assistance. However, most FRESHFARM markets do not achieve one of Fisher's core principles -- offering basic food at affordable prices. Items vary with sellers, so customer's choices depend on which sellers show up, and when.

Recent visits to markets near the White House and Silver Spring reveal a serious problem: It would be very difficult to put together a full meal for a family of four based on the selections available. Many items were exotic, not staples. Ground bison was running at $6.25 per pound, and ham retailed at $7.95 per pound. Hunting for side dishes was also a problem. Since prices varied by vendor, it took a keen eye and comparison shopping to find the best deals. One vendor charged $4.50 for approximately four asparagus spears, while another stall sold two hefty bundles for $7. A meal for four people consisting of 2 pounds of ham, two containers of baby potatoes, and two baskets of spinach retailed close to $34. Even with double dollars, at $15 it still may prove to be a stretch.

As the calls to utilize farmers markets to provide fresh food and vegetables to underserved populations intensify, it is imperative to re-evaluate the business model. A solution that would satisfy both locavores and food-justice activists may be found in the poorest areas of Washington, D.C. Ward 8, a predominantly black community with high rates of poverty and unemployment, exemplifies the scarcity of healthy, inexpensive food in many communities. After the final supermarket in the area closed in the late 1990s, community organizations pooled their resources to fund other initiatives. The Ward 8 market (along with the now-defunct Anacostia farmers market) opened to provide the residents with fresh fruit and vegetables to supplement convenience-store fare.

Jody Tick, director of the Capital Area Food Bank's Harvest for Health initiative, explained in an* article last year, that the two markets focused on the social-justice aspect of food and eating.

Tick, who ran the Anacostia farmers market for seven seasons, explains that the Anacostia location reached an average of 120 customers a week, whose average transactions were between $3 and $4. It was not enough to keep it open, and a supermarket, a Giant, in Congress Heights helped drive the market out of business. The market provided affordable food but evolved to tackle a more basic, educational problem as well. Convenience foods efficiently and cheaply serve up salty, sugary creations that can be taken and enjoyed, while simple foods require preparation time, cooking know-how, and the ability to put together enough components to create a full meal. Tick started a garden project for youth to instill the ideas of healthy eating and food preparation from an early age, in hopes that when these children grow up, carrots and pita are just as appealing as a combo meal. "We are literally building from the ground up," she says.

At the same time, the Ward 8 farmers market revamped its strategy to provide more of a community-focused approach. The Ward 8 market conducted more outreach to instill a sense of ownership. The market also accepted Electronic Benefit Transfer and WIC coupons. It also collaborated with D.C. Hunger Solutions' Healthy Corner Store Program to give convenience stores unsold farmers-market produce. This simple step is a huge one, since corner stores are where many in the neighborhood shopped anyway. Weather and pests can directly affect the prices farmers have to charge and, because they're unpredictable, can cause prices to vary widely. To counteract that, the Ward 8 market worked with the community to determine what fruits and vegetables were most important to shoppers, and now the farmers work to provide basics and favorites as often as possible. Whether the types of produce available are the types people want to cook makes a big difference.

This multi-prong approach will be key to enhancing the role farmers markets play in eradicating problems with food scarcity and availability. It only operates once a week, but the location is convenient to area residents, and the corner-store program extends the market's reach. Because the market relies on feedback from the community in order to thrive, it is seen as a vital good in ways that chain stores are not. We may have a long way to go as a nation with rehabilitating our sugar and fat-laden eating habits, but the Ward 8 market provides a blueprint for those hoping to push a food-positive agenda with an eye for social justice.

*This article originally misstated the publication in which the article was published.