There aren’t that many big changes in American life that I would consider a 100 percent net positive development. Usually, there are pluses and minuses, something gained and something lost. For instance, I love being able to stream videos and buy books and music online, but hate the idea that book stores and records stores (yes, even video stores) are going away. The dearth of public places where people gather and browse is a big loss.
But if I did have to come up with a wholly positive, 100 percent good change, it would be the growing number and size of farmers markets throughout the land. Whenever I visit a new place (if in the spring, summer or fall), I invariably make it by the local farmers market.
Admittedly, I’m not always buying kale. I may get a cup of coffee and an adobado burrito (if I’m at the Santa Fe Farmers Market) or a buffalo brat (back home in Denver), but occasionally some actual produce does find its way into my bag.
Farmers markets combine public spaces with increased consumer choice and better nutrition. They help support local producers and make it more possible and popular to have “farm-to- table” eating experiences, whether in a chic restaurant or at home. And more and more farmers markets are doing something else—promoting better nutrition and greater access to affordable, fresh produce in lower income, inner city communities.
I first noticed this trend in 2008 when New Haven, Connecticut, won an All-America City Award and one of its projects was an ambitious city effort to bring farmers markets into produce-deprived low income neighborhoods. Now Ann Arbor, Michigan, a 2011 All-America City finalist has joined the trend.
At age 91, the farmers market in the Kerrytown section of Ann Arbor its one of the largest producer-only farmers markets in Michigan, an agglomeration of more than 100 market vendors including farmers, growers, bakers and artisans. The market operates year round on Saturdays and also on Wednesdays from May through December.
And since 2004, the Project FRESH program has made farmer’s market produce available to low-income, “nutritionally at-risk consumers,” specifically the 5600 participants in Washtenaw County’s Women, Infants & Children Program. Program participants receive a booklet of ten $2 coupons to be used at their local farmers markets between June 1 and Oct. 31. Only fresh fruit and vegetables may be purchased (no prepackaged foods or baked goods).
Getting the project started was not without its difficulties, however. When it was first launched only five market vendors were willing to participate, preferring to sell on a cash or check only basis, but these days about 80 percent of vendors participate, with an approximate redemption amount of $5,088.
The market has also joined forces with the state and federal low income food assistance programs (FAPs), better known as food stamp programs. Eligible participants receive food assistance benefits electronically on a state-issued “Bridge “Card, which the Ann Arbor Farmers Market began accepting as a form of payment in 2009.
This was a little tricky because earlier the market only accepted cash and checks, so as food stamp program changed from paper vouchers to electronic swiping cards a new process had to be developed. Participants were asked to swipe their Bridge card in the market office and request a dollar amount to use at the market. The amount is then deducted from their card in exchange for market tokens to use at participating market vendor stalls. To avoid a stigma being associated with using tokens, the market also began issuing tokens for any shoppers who wish to pay with a credit card.
FAP recipients can use the Bridge Card to purchase fruits, vegetables, baked goods and pre-packaged foods at the farmers market. In 2009, there were approximately 20 market vendors participating with a redemption rate of $4,750. By 2010, there were 56 market vendors participating with an approximate redemption rate of $16,200.
This, as I said before, has to be one of the 100 percent wholly positive developments and it seems to be something of a trend. Farmers markets in Portland, Oregon and Detroit have similar programs. Ann Arbor market manager Molly Notarianni calls it a “win-win-win” solution, adding an extra “win” to the usual “win-win.” It’s good for the farmers, who have more potential customers. It’s good for the government, which can get more nutritious food to nutritionally “underserved” communities. And it’s good for the food assistance recipients, who get to eat healthier for less.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.