“Market” Research: Learning the Dynamics of Building Community

      Posted On: July 20, 2008

by Michael Rosenkrantz, FMC trans·act Fellow

What better way to spend a day than at a farmers market, enjoying juicy peaches, nectarines and plums, interactingMichael Rosenkrantz at Hollywood Farmers Market with customers and vendors and finding out what people truly think about markets? Beyond the variety of food is the diversity of sounds: a young teen singing Neil Young covers, an older man singing traditional Japanese songs with a 20 year old guitar, a middle aged couple singing in Spanish, and toddlers dancing along with the market drummer. Neighbors are reacquainting, new friends are being made, and everyone is smiling, regardless of who they are, where they come from, or how much money they have or don’t have. The public space has been created to support family farms and local businesses, people are saving money and resources by walking or riding bikes, and consumers are learning healthy eating habits. If a farmers market can be such a powerful equalizer and simultaneously define community, I’m setting out to better understand the elements that make this possible.

Last month, I returned “home” to the Los Angeles area and am serving as this summer’s trans·act Research Fellow for marketumbrella and the Farmers Market Coalition. I’m investigating the seven Sustainable Economic Enterprise of Los Angeles (SEE-LA) markets, and one Kaiser Permanente Farmers Market in Woodland Hills, which is managed by the Southland Farmers Market Association. You can learn more about the history and goals of this project at the trans·act web site.

This is the second year of the research fellowship and there is presently another fellow working in New Orleans to refine the Sticky Economic Evaluation Device (SEED). Senior Research Fellow Robin Moon coordinates our efforts, and the Ford Foundation is providing the funding for this effort.

Who are the Local Partners?
SEE-LA is a community development corporation working to fill the void of fresh food access in urban, mostly low-income Los Angeles, by empowering the community through education and access, in turn empowering vendors. SEE-LA operates seven markets in the Los Angeles area, ranging in size from ten vendors at the Lemon Grove Farmers Market to150 vendors at the 17 year old flagship Hollywood Farmers Market. The markets operate in areas where the census tract “minority” populations range from 66% to 99% and the median household incomes range from 47% to 100% of the 2007 US Housing and Urban Development (HUD) family estimate.

Kaiser Permanente is the largest nonprofit health plan in the United States, serving 8.6 million members. In April, 2007 K.P. teamed up with the Southland Farmers Market Association, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting growers, to encourage healthy eating among employees, physicians, patients, and their families, by establishing the Woodland Hills Market. Kaiser has 23 farmers markets on hospital campuses throughout California and other farmers markets throughout Hawaii, Georgia and Oregon.

What are trans·act’s goals for 2008?
This summer’s goals for trans·act is to expand upon the 2007 research by refining and finalizing a set of survey tools developed to qualitatively and quantitatively measure the social capital impact that markets offer. This means investigating how building social capital impacts community health, and developing locality-specific case studies , to understand the dynamics and the social dimensions of markets.

My specific assignment is to manage a group of seven trained interviewers and conduct the field surveys at the eight Los Angeles markets. The surveys will be conducted in all eight markets over the span of six weeks, and after spending at least two days at each market, we now have a total of 21 days of market interviews and survey data, consisting of:

  • in-person interviews of customers, vendors, and managers at markets, each with a unique set of questions
  • door to door interviews of residents in the surrounding neighborhoods
  • shadowing of customers and vendors at the market, observing their interactions with one another.

We are nearly through with our market day interviews and I’m observing first-hand the tangible and intangible impacts of these farmers markets, each one uniquely interacting with its surrounding neighborhoods. From my work to date, I’d like to share some of my personal, less formal observations.

The Hollywood Farmers Market (HFM) is by far the largest open-air farmers market that I’ve ever seen, with 150 vendors, mainly farmers. Every Sunday, the market transforms a four blocks between Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards into the community center. The mass of humanity and the variety of product is truly breathtaking. I haven’t seen any celebrities yet, but a couple of the interviewers told me that they tried to conduct a shopper interview of former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham (wife of the soccer star David Beckham), and were told by one of her bodyguards that “this wasn’t a good time”. I should note that the income stream of the HFM enables the organization to locate markets in low income areas where they are desperately needed.Leimert Park FM

Leimert Park Farmers Market is a true “community” market, taking place in a theatre parking lot every Saturday. I have felt very at home at this market, as I recently learned that, when I was a baby, my mother would walk me in a stroller on these very streets. The neighborhood population is mostly African American, with some of the vendors saying that they feel a “calling” to educate the community about healthy alternatives. One such vendor is South Central Farmers Health and Education Fund, a cooperative focused on bringing produce to underserved areas. In interviewing another vendor about which markets they preferred, they said Leimert Park because it is the “center of the Black creative community.” This market features music all day, and many of the customers can be seen dancing as they shop. Some even perform rap at the market open mic. On a recent visit, I noticed two men in wheel chairs sitting close to the music, grooving as they felt the beat moving them.

Watts Farmers Market is the newest SEE-LA market, located in a small park where the neighborhood’s medianWatts Healthy Farmers Market family income is at 56% of the national median, and 99% of the population is considered “minority”. The park features soccer and baseball fields. On a recent visit I noticed a group of six young men repeatedly asking for samples. One of the vendors became upset, so I approached the young men with a pint of strawberries which they gobbled down very quickly, and learned that they loved fresh fruits and vegetables. The issue, apparently, was their lack of money and the fact that their parents weren’t with them to actually purchase produce. Kaiser Permanente is helping to fund this market, which is a welcome addition to a community with few fresh (and especially organic) produce alternatives. Although we may intuitively know that this farmers market is a boon for the community in bringing healthy alternatives to residents, how do we get the larger population to frequent the market and adopt this as their own?

The Atwater Farmers Market recently celebrated its third anniversary by providing fresh carrot cake to all of those in attendance. This market features 30 vendors and recently added a vegan ice cream producer. As I watched one of the Asian immigrant vendors tend to her 11 month old baby and simultaneously wait on customers, I wondered what kind of life this woman had lived and how different her child’s life might be here in the U.S. Surely, for each individuals that make a farmers market come alive, there are many unspoken stories waiting to be told.

As the summer progresses, I look forward to listening to these stories and watching them unfold into the present tense. Later this year, not only will our data become available to the market community at large, but finalized versions of our survey instruments will become known as the Neighborhood Exchange Evaluation Device (NEED), adding to the growing number of tools to help markets effectively evaluate a range of impacts on their communities. For now, I’m enjoying participating in the vibrant orchestra that allows farmers markets to bring every type of person together in one place to celebrate some of the greatest things that life has to offer: food and community.