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Dupont Circle Farmers Market adds new vendors after black businesses said they were denied access because of race

Toyin Alli, owner of the Union Market food booth Puddin’, said she has tried for years to sell food at the Dupont Circle Farmers Market without luck. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

When Toyin Alli saw Freshfarm, an organization that operates 30 farmers markets in the Washington region, advertise its black vendors on Instagram, her eyes narrowed and her heartbeat quickened.

“I can’t believe they just posted that,” she thought. “How disingenuous.”

The post — which listed her Cajun and Creole comfort-food venture among black-owned businesses in the Freshfarm network — appeared among similar messages on social media amid the national uprising against racial injustice. But for Alli, the sentiment of the post rang hollow. Alli said she had tried for seven years to secure a spot at the prized Dupont Circle Farmers Market, Freshfarm’s highest-grossing location in the region. And each year, her shop, Puddin’, was denied access.

“Please refrain from using my business to demonstrate [your] ‘inclusiveness’ when I know y’all not about that life!” Alli fired back on Instagram. Other black vendors soon amplified her message, sharing their own rejections and frustrations over trying to get into the only Freshfarm market open year-round in Washington.

“They have an idea of what they want Dupont Circle to look like, and I don’t fit that,” Alli said. “There is no telling how much money we have lost out on over the years because they don’t have fair vendor practices. I am just really angry and annoyed.”

What started as a fiery debate on Instagram produced its first seeds of change last week when Freshfarm announced that it had taken steps toward increasing diversity among vendors — including adding Puddin’ to the Dupont Circle market.

Hugo Mogollon, executive director of Freshfarm, said he called Alli to address her concerns about her application status over the years. He said she had previously listed a food truck on her applications, and such trucks are not accepted at Dupont Circle’s market. Alli largely denied that, saying she had done so in past years but not on recent applications.

“There are no discriminatory practices in our selection process; it is not race-related,” Mogollon said. “But I know as an organization we need to be more proactive in diversifying our vendors.”

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Freshfarm has long recognized the pressing need for diversity among its vendors. In 2017, the company opened applications to the Dupont Circle Farmers Market, which had been invitation-only, to all interested vendors. But earlier this month, only five out of 45 vendors at the market were black, Mogollon said.

He added that the Dupont Circle market is designed to have more farmers and producers than concession stands, which makes it harder to diversify its vendors because of decades of systemic racism in the agricultural food system.

But some black vendors and farmers said they didn’t think they would have a fair shot at getting into the market either way.

“I never wanted to go there with race because I felt like my success was something I had to prove,” said Edwina Arenas, known as “Eee” to her loyal customers at Lemonade Love Ya. “But when this Black Lives Matter movement started happening, I thought more about it. We have lost out on opportunity for exposure, and now we aren’t growing as fast.”

Chris Newman, a black farmer, said he has not bothered to apply to the Dupont Circle market because he thought Sylvanaqua Farms, an agricultural collective, would immediately be rejected.

“I am not going to bang my head against this wall where I know I will not get through,” he said. “What you are seeing is the end result of systemic racism, and it is dressed up in farm-to-table marketing.”

Ben Feldman, executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition, said the frustrations felt by vendors at Freshfarm, an organization in his network, are part of a larger reckoning that the food industry must face when it comes to race.

“It is impossible not to recognize that our agriculture system was built on a system of slavery and land theft,” he said. “Farmers markets are America, and to the extent that America is grappling with racial injustice, farmers markets are grappling with those same issues.”

Farzana Serang, who leads a program to address racial inequities in the food system as executive director of the Castanea Fellowship, agrees that systemic problems have kept diversity out of the food industry.

“Black farmers have faced discrimination from banks, been denied land, not offered mentorship, have to make farms work with low capacity, and the hurdles don’t stop,” she said in a text message. “Farmers markets are another barrier in a long history of anti-blackness in the food system.”

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Less than a week after the debate over vendor diversity was sparked on social media, Freshfarm promised changes. It apologized for its initial message listing black-owned businesses in the network, saying it “missed the mark.” In addition to more long-term objectives such as clarifying and sharing its vendor selection processes, Mogollon forged an agreement with the city to modify his coronavirus waiver to expand the market. As a result, he added four black-owned businesses to the Dupont Circle Farmers Market, including Puddin’.

“We are looking inward to understand how and why we have fallen short in making the market platform accessible to all and in particular black people and people of color,” Mogollon said in a statement.

Under blue skies on Father’s Day, Alli sold her second-to-last shrimp and grits to Kelvin Wright, a longtime Puddin’ customer at Eastern Market. Wright, who is black, had followed Alli’s story on social media. He decided to come to the Dupont Circle Farmers Market for the first time to support his favorite food shop and teach his daughter a lesson in the process.

“I want my daughter to see that this is how you fight the system,” Wright said. He turned to Alli.

“I am so happy to see you here,” he said as he grabbed his meal. “I have been following your story and couldn’t believe that you hadn’t been here before.”

“It is a first step,” Alli replied, as her mom, Ann Alli, watched the exchange and smiled.

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