How to bring farmers markets to the urban poor

Amanda Voisard/The Washington Post - Helena Cumberbatch uses a Fresh Check to buy produce at the Crossroads Farmers Market in Takoma Park. The market was the first in the U.S. to launch double-value coupons, which match federal nutrition benefits.

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Michael Lipsky, a former professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a distinguished senior fellow at Demos.

For almost 20 years, I’ve sold tomatoes, basil, lettuce, kale and other vegetables at the Takoma Park Farmers Market on Sundays during the summer season. It’s one of several markets my wife helped start at the dawn of the farmers market movement.

Last month, I spent a day selling for the first time at another market in Takoma Park, Md. — the Crossroads Farmers Market, open on Wednesdays. Though Crossroads is just two miles from the Sunday market, the customers couldn’t be more different. Crossroads is in the poorest of Takoma Park’s four neighborhoods and also serves Langley Park and other low-income areas nearby.

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Here, people speak mostly Spanish. Customers can find kabocha squash, chipilin and other staples of Central American kitchens, as well as pupusas, tostadas and other prepared foods. I saw fewer white faces at Crossroads. I heard fewer questions about whether produce was sprayed with chemicals and many more about how much everything cost. At Crossroads, shoppers measure every dollar against an unforgiving budget. Many go home with potatoes or onions, but not both.

The Sunday market was established in 1982, when farmers markets were more novel. No one knew whether customers would show up. Now that Takoma Park has two markets — one with a relatively affluent clientele, the other whose customers are struggling — it’s time to think about how the market with deeper pockets can better serve all the area’s residents.

Crossroads was established in 2007 to respond to the uncomfortable reality that the wildly successful Sunday market served mostly the well-to-do. Organized by a former journalist who sold baked goods and was troubled by the class biases of the Sunday market’s customer base, Crossroads was founded to offer the farmers market experience to low-income people. It achieves this not just with its location in a poor neighborhood and its accessibility by bus, but by offering a friendly environment for people to apply for food stamps and women’s nutrition programs on site. Maryland ranks 42nd in the nation in food stamp enrollment, with more than 150,000 eligible people not receiving them. With musicians performing and the smells of familiar foods in the air, Crossroads is a welcoming spot to apply for public benefits.

But it is the additional financial resources that make the real difference at Crossroads. Customers can use food stamps and vouchers specifically created to attract participants in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and the elderly.

Most important, Crossroads was one of the first markets in the country to raise private money to supplement food stamps and nutrition-assistance grants. For every dollar a low-income mother-to-be spends at Crossroads with her benefits, for example, she can receive an equal amount in market coupons — called Fresh Checks — doubling her purchasing power.

According to program manager Michelle Dudley, in seven years, Crossroads has raised more than $250,000 to help low-income customers buy fresh food — and, in turn, help make it worthwhile for farmers to sell there. So far this year, about a third of the money paid to vendors at Crossroads has come from government programs, but close to half has come from Fresh Checks. These figures suggest that, to reach those in poverty, farmers markets need private programs as well as federal subsidies.

These markets are central to the growing local-food movement. There are more than 8,000 farmers markets in the United States, more than four times as many as there were 20 years ago. But with child poverty on the rise and 15 percent of Americans lacking enough money for food, at least some of the time, farmers markets can’t claim to have a new vision for agriculture without better connecting to poor customers.

This de facto exclusion of the poor didn’t originate with farmers markets. The country’s tolerance for inequality divides citizens by income level in every sphere, such as affordable housing and higher education. It is not the fault of farmers markets that the minimum wage is effectively lower than it was in 1967, for example, or that middle-class jobs are hard to come by.

Moreover, it’s not that farmers market prices are too high but that the supermarket prices with which they compete are too low. The costs to society of industrial agriculture — pollution; animals’ ill health, masked by antibiotics in concentrated feedlots; insupportably low farm wages; and the carbon generated by transporting food to the East Coast from California and South America — are not registered in the prices at Shoppers.

The Sunday market is a good place to begin thinking about how to better reach those in need. After all, some of its members founded Crossroads, and in 2007 it joined Crossroads as one of the first markets in the D.C. area to accept food stamps. Many Sunday vendors accept WIC and other benefits, but the market isn’t easily accessible for people without cars, and its prices are relatively high.

For the moment, philanthropy has to be part of the solution. Since 2008, the national nonprofit Wholesome Wave has introduced programs like those at Crossroads to double the value of government food vouchers in more than 300 “farm to retail” sites in 28 states and the District of Columbia. GrowNYC, a New York nonprofit that sponsors more than 50 markets, has developed weekly food shares that can be purchased by food stamp recipients, and supports immigrant farmers. The Sunday market provides an opportunity to raise money among customers for programs of the sort that are used effectively at Crossroads and across the country.

This approach is promising but also precarious. It depends on Congress to maintain and expand nutrition and food assistance, and to encourage healthy food choices through farmers market vouchers. It also depends on continuing charitable support from patrons who today believe that everyone should have access to good food but whose attention might turn elsewhere tomorrow.

The local-food movement is in its infancy. It will continue to expand as more people give priority to knowing where and how their food is grown, and as the hidden costs of industrial agriculture become more evident. The Crossroads Farmers Market shows that the advantages of buying local food can be shared widely. We can work toward the day when Wednesday’s shoppers can afford Sunday’s prices, too.

mlipsky@demos.org

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15 %

Share of Americans lacking enough money for food, at least some of the time, as of 2011.

More than

$250,000

Funds raised by Crossroads to help low-income customers buy fresh food — and, in turn, help make it worthwhile for farmers to sell at the market.

 
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