This entry is from Jed Hinkley, Healthy Foods Coordinator, Partnerships to Improve Community Health, Albemarle Regional Health Services
Starting and running a farmers market in rural, northeastern North Carolina is very different than starting and running a farmers market in the urban areas of the state such as the Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill) or other urban centers across the country. In many ways a paradox exists in agricultural areas because often people have limited access to farmers markets and local fruits and vegetables. Urban food deserts get a lot of attention, however, in northeast North Carolina entire counties do not have grocery stores and many census tracts are considered food deserts due to a of lack of transportation. These include tracts where over 100 households have no vehicle access at all. When people have no access to a vehicle and live over 20 miles from a grocery store, it is very hard to eat well, let alone purchase local fruits and vegetables.
These challenges are exactly what the Partnerships to Improve Community Health (PICH) grant, through Albemarle Regional Health Services is addressing by bringing fresh, local fruits and vegetable closer to people in need. It is doing this by starting farmers markets, roadside stands, and mobile/pop-up markets in low-resourced communities. In year two of the grant, PICH helped to start five new farmers markets, two new roadside stands, and a new mobile market location. However, starting the markets and stands is just the beginning. The greater challenge may be sustaining them. This is due in large part to rural areas having low population densities. Residents are spread out, towns are small, and walkability and bikeability are often low. It is hard for markets in towns of under 5,000 people to survive especially when transportation is a challenge, and many residents opt for retail choices where they can get everything they need in one place. Additionally, though northeastern North Carolina is very agricultural and farms are small by national standards, there are actually not a large number of produce farmers, and even fewer farmers participating in retail sales. Many produce growers can only make a living by wholesaling their crops out of the region. One certainly cannot blame them for this because they need to go where the customers are in order to sustain themselves.
Because of all these factors, PICH and the Healthy Foods Coalition, which has over 30 members from across 17 counties in northeast NC, are constantly trying to be creative and use innovative models for improving access to healthy foods. To accomplish this, the coalition has had to identify functions other than just profits for markets and stands, though this is the key to long term sustainability. New farmers markets have become a means for teaching youth where their food comes from and how the value chain works. They also are a way to involve health partners who have a vested interest in the local economy and improved health outcomes such as Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) and Local Health Departments, and non-traditional health partners like town and county governments. These innovations have included a farmers market that is run by a high school Future Farmers of America (FFA) student group in Perquimans County. It has taught the students valuable lessons about writing legal documents such as market rules and memorandum of understandings and business practices such as working with vendors and managing money.
Another approach involves a monthly market that partners with other organizations holding events the same day in order to boost the number of customers and enhance the number and variety of products offered. Ferry traffic going and coming from Ocracoke Island also creates a unique opportunity to capitalize on. The goal of markets is to make them a community event where residents from the town and county can rally around to support, which in turn can transition into an economically viable operation in the long run.
A final approach that has been effective in other parts of North Carolina is a pop-up market at governmental complexes including local health departments. This has had some success in Catawba County, NC, with Farmer Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) WIC voucher- redemption being the highest in the state. The success is likely due to addressing a geographic barrier; when markets are at a place where individuals are already going for health services, vouchers can be taken directly outside and used, therefore access to healthy and local produce is increased as is participation of patients and staff.
Next year more innovative approaches are planned, like a school garden collaboration that will also function as a pop-up market at the local health center, and incorporates a new walking trail, to connect the gardens. Stay tuned…
Image from Plan4Health Trenton Coalition.