Teaching An Old Market New Tricks

In a previous post, I mentioned that when I explain my Fellowship, I typically describe it as having two interconnected and mutually beneficial parts. One part is a communications campaign, “Breaking Beans,” to encourage the inclusion of food and farming in the discourse of transition in eastern Kentucky. The other part is the subject of today’s post: helping a high-potential, low capacity market level up.

 How are these two parts working together? The thought is that as the ideas and actions of food and farm innovators are brought to public light through the communications campaign, people will be increasingly able to visualize similar things happening in their own community. This creates a political environment friendlier to new initiatives as well as changes in systems already in place. And as communities have more ideas, there’s more worth communicating, and the mutualism perpetuates.

My work with our local farmers market is one example of a change to an existing system. Many markets in the region – and across the nation – have been trying out ways to increase access to fresh, healthy, local foods for all people. From making the market family-friendly with kids’ activities to accepting SNAP benefits and offering “Double Dollars,” there are many models to experiment with. But in order to experiment, a market needs a dedicated individual or group who can pursue the needed certifications and connections and relationships.

Historically, our local farmers market has been run by the Tourism Board. For almost a decade, Tourism has done great work building up the market, recruiting farmers, securing space, and advertising. However, the staff person for Tourism had so much more to do in their role that they were only able to do the bare minimum for the market – which doesn’t include all the things that take a market to the next level.

As more and more media stories (some of them being Breaking Beans pieces) came out about the awesome things happening at markets all around, it became increasingly clear that if we didn’t start getting creative with our market, we were going to fall behind our neighbors.

That’s where I come in. One of the goals of the AppFellows program is to increase the capacity of organizations and initiatives. And increase capacity is what I am doing. At the end of 2014, the Tourism Board announced it was stepping down from managing the market, turning it over to one of my host organizations which, as a result, meant I was the new point person. Finally, the market has a person who is paid to spend a good chunk of their time and energy on the market. A person to attempt the daunting task of applying to accept SNAP and WIC. A person to visit vendor farms. A person to work with all the media outlets to advertise for the market. A person to help move the market forward with the times.

But the plan isn’t to keep me as this person. Instead, I am currently working to help set up a board with representatives from the vendor group and the community. This group will then become the decision-makers who will guide the market into the future. Included in their decisions will be the hiring of a market manager – who will then be responsible for things such as contacting vendors – arranging trainings, marketing the market, enforcing the market rules, and being a contact for the market.

Why is this project worth an AppFellow’s time? Because ensuring the growth and prosperity of a farmers’ market serves several purposes:

1.       To provide a market opportunity for growers and crafters – a little extra cash in the pocket is a good thing, especially when the going gets rough.

2.       To increase the accessibility of fresh, healthy foods for all people – most vendors sell fruits and vegetables harvested that morning. Offering Double Dollars, accepting food benefits, partnering in a “food prescription program,” and having programs for kids enables more people to not only shop but to feel encouraged and welcome to shop at the market.

3.       To reinvigorate a sense of community. A neighboring market claims that people who visit markets have 15-20 social interactions per visit versus 1-2 interactions at a grocery story. Who knows where an increase in social interaction might lead?

4.       So much more!

My project may be focused on just one market, but success in this project means more local money, more healthy eating, and more community engagement – a model that can be used pretty much anywhere.

-Mae Humiston