Growing the Grassroots: Markets & Community Organizing

      Posted On: July 29, 2009

by Jennifer McTiernan H.
Executive Director, CitySeed, Inc.
New Haven, CT

Farmers markets are incredibly powerful tools for community organizing. In gathering the same group of people – market day after market day – at the same time and in the same place, we already have what most advocates can only hope for: a solid base of community engagement, as well as a potent demonstration project. With our First Lady raising the profile of local, healthy food, there is no better time for farmers markets across the country to harness their grassroots energy in order to make an impact on the policy level.

Why advocacy?
By facilitating a direct exchange between grower and eater, farmers markets lay bare a mechanism by which healthy food can be made available to a broad spectrum of people. In and of themselves, they are an outreach and education tool, prodding market-goers to think about our food system and what encourages – and prevents – healthy eating.

This has been my experience with CitySeed, a community-based non-profit located in New Haven, Connecticut, that works locally and statewide to increase access to local, healthy food and promote farm viability. CitySeed began in 2004 when four neighbors realized it was nearly impossible to find a fresh tomato – never mind one grown locally – in the Wooster Square neighborhood of New Haven. We quickly discovered that promoting local food and farms is an effective strategy for redressing this fundamental injustice of our food system. This effect is measurable: since 2005, we track Food Stamp and WIC redemption at our network of four neighborhood markets. We are also able to determine the local economic impact of the markets, since we collect a vendor fee that equals 3% of gross sales. In 2008, our markets contributed $1.75 million to job creation and the local economy and redeemed over $78,500 in WIC and Food Stamps.

Quantifiably, CitySeed’s markets are increasing access to fresh, healthy food and promoting farm viability. Without question, there is considerable power in these neighborhood-based grassroots effort. On some level, however, this direct exchange is inherently limited in its scalability and application to the systemic causes of food access challenges. If we want to see change on a broader scale, farmers markets – as a movement – need to become advocates for policy change.

Then what?
While it is certainly the case that many market-goers are more than happy to show up every Saturday, fill their baskets and head back home, there is a substantial number eager to show their support for policies that promote farm viability and food access. A simple way to start would be to begin to collect a list of market-goers who would be willing to sign a petition or write to their elected officials. Food Democracy Now!, the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, American Farmland Trust, and the National Food Security Coalition all maintain listservs that put out action alerts. Your market could decide to focus on a single issue – such as school food, organic certification, or farmland preservation – and then share relevant alerts with your list of interested market-goers. In addition, you could organize a screening and then discussion of Food, Inc., an outstanding newly released documentary featuring Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser. This movie is incredibly powerful, and I have no doubt that it has the potential to tip farmers market-goers into taking action on the policy level.

You might also identify an issue impeding your ability to successfully run your market – such as potential cuts to WIC funding or regulatory tape – or, alternately, a policy that, if implemented, would promote your market and the agricultural economy – such as a farmers market grants program. With a vibrant, community-based farmers market as your platform, you can make your case to elected officials at the local, state and even national levels. In doing so, you can help grow the pie for farmers and build an equitable, local food system. This has certainly been CitySeed’s experience. We began by taking our case to City Hall and successfully establishing the New Haven Food Policy Council through city ordinance in 2005. We conceived the council to engage a broad range of entities related to the food system (grocers, distributors, anti-hunger advocates, and school system representatives) in the kind of collaborative problem solving required in a system as complex as the one that brings food from the farm to our tables. Most notably, CitySeed and the council were essential in advocating for the New Haven Public School District to serve fresher, less processed school meals, including some produce grown locally. As a result, 20,000 New Haven schoolchildren eat a healthier lunch every day. Next, we are working with our Congresswoman, the Honorable Rosa DeLauro, on a proposed pilot program that would raise the reimbursement rate for the National School Lunch Program and tie it to an increase in fresh fruits and vegetables served.

We have also found our way to the State Capitol in Hartford, along the way becoming a compelling voice for both food access in disadvantaged communities (urban and rural alike) and the viability of Connecticut’s agricultural base, the fates of which we understood to be inextricably linked. We successfully advocated to define a farmers market as an extension of the farm (allowing farmers to continue to sell the same variety of products at the market that they could sell at their farm stand) and to increase state funding to triple the number of eligible seniors given Senior WIC Coupons for use at farmers markets.

It is clear that the grassroots enthusiasm for farmers markets can be translated into successful advocacy in the local and state policy arena. It’s up to all of us to tap this resource and to take advantage of this historic opportunity. Collectively, we have the power to change the food policy landscape in this country.