The events that took place in Charlottesville have the whole country asking questions about our history and the systems that have facilitated implicit and—increasingly—overt racism to persist. One thing is clear: we can and must do more to understand each other. I don’t pretend that farmers markets are the solution to the country’s divisions, but they can play an important role in building the trust, shared purpose, and respect that must bind our nation and our neighborhoods together. Farmers markets don’t just link small farms and businesses with the larger food economy, they also provide a rare opportunity to make genuine connections with people of economic, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds different than our own.
Markets have made great strides in serving as truly welcoming civic centers. Charlottesville’s own City Market and nonprofit partner, Market Central, work with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to host regular cooking demonstrations featuring produce grown by refugees who sell at the market. Charlottesville markets offer an incentive program that doubles the purchasing power of SNAP recipients, to ensure neighbors from all backgrounds and income levels can access fresh, local food. Annual farm tours are hosted to bring customers out into the surrounding rural areas to learn more about the farms that feed them.
These efforts were thwarted last Saturday, when white supremacists marched through town, forcing the market to close early to ensure the safety of its vendors and customers. Erica Hellen of Free Union Grass Farm described the day in plain terms, “I saw their Nazi flags, heard their hateful chants, felt the communal heart rate rise as the helicopter circled overhead, watched my farm sales suffer when good people were too frightened to leave their homes. I stood vigil on a street I’ve walked a hundred times, where Heather Heyer died.”
For every community, the moment when tragedy occurs is a defining one. As the market reopens this weekend, customers and vendors will commiserate, mourn, and debate potential paths of action. The market will change and grow under the weight of this experience. How can we, the broader farmers market community, support them, and learn from the process?
Farmers market managers and vendors have long been on the forefront of expanding access, addressing food justice issues, and building inclusive communities. Where are we now? What’s our role in moving the needle forward on race and economic disparities? How can we invite more diversity, more variety, more opportunities for meaningful connections? Are we doing everything we can to welcome all of our neighbors? Join the discussion on FMC’s listserv; we’ll continue to do our best to share your innovations, efforts and successes so we can move forward together.
People gather for a candlelight vigil on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville Wednesday night. Photo by Sanjay Suchak via NPR.