Hope for a Healthy Nation: New Farmers Market is a Powerful Symbol and Much More

      Posted On: September 10, 2009

Today, FRESHFARM Markets announced the opening of its newest producer-only farmers market, the ‘FRESHFARM Market, by the White House,’ set to open on September 17th.  The market, to be held on Thursdays from 3:00 to 7:00 p.m., will be located in the 800 block of Vermont Avenue NW, between H Street, NW and I Street, NW.  At the same time, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan are poised to announce the ‘Know your Farmer, Know your Food’ Initiative (KYF), launching September 14th.  This is an unprecedented convergence of support for farmers markets at the national level.  The Farmers Market Coalition proudly recognizes the pivotal role that its Board member Bernadine Prince, and Co-Director Ann Yonkers at FreshFarm Markets have played in this momentous achievement.   “In addition to bringing fresh, locally-grown food to the neighborhood near the White House, this new market will accept Food Stamps, WIC and SFMNP coupons and give these market shoppers free matching market dollars through our Double Dollars program,” Prince says.  “I also hope that this producer-only farmers market will inspire more neighborhoods throughout the world to transform public spaces into farmers markets that provide access to healthy, local foods produced by family farmers.”

Such a market is not only a seminal symbolic gesture, but as President Obama himself said during a August 20th National Health Care Forum, “It gives suddenly D.C. more access to good, fresh food, but it also is this enormous potential revenue maker for local farmers in the area.  And those kinds of connections can be made all throughout the country and has to be part of how we think about health.”

First Lady Michelle Obama, too, in a recent video described the White House Garden as “…an important introduction into what I hope will be a new way that our country thinks about food.”  Clearly, locating a new farmers market near the White House simply makes good sense.   Sharon Yeago, Farmers Market Coalition President, says, “FMC  believes so strongly in what is happening in the nation’s capitol that we’ve selected DC as the site of our annual board retreat, scheduled for late October, that will utilize locally-grown foods and include a visit to a farmers market in the district.”

What makes farmers markets so special? They are unique in that they offer us a means to improve our own health AND invest in our local economies by driving regional entrepreneurship.  They remind us that Americans can and do make healthy choices when they are made available, and that, all other things being equal, folks prefer investing in their neighbors rather than in faceless retailers with distant corporate headquarters.  Just recently, yet another study provides evidence of the significant economic impact farmers markets can have in their hosting communities.

The Farmers Market Coalition, representing more than 1,700 farmers markets and nearly 12,000 farmers selling at them nationwide,  understands the powerful role that farmers markets, as keystones in healthy local food economies, can play in our national future—a future that values proactive personal wellness, diverse and vibrant family farms, and thriving local economies.  Making farmers markets and other fresh local food options an accessible choice for all Americans should indeed be a top national priority.

Farmers markets redeem approximately $40 million annually in Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) vouchers, providing fresh produce to more than 3 million low income mothers, young children, and seniors[i],[ii].  Farmers at farmers markets, too, gladly donate hundreds of thousands of pounds of unsold fresh produce to food banks, shelters, and other social service agencies every year.  Nevertheless, fewer than 20% of the approximately 4,900 farmers markets nationwide presently accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly ‘food stamp’) benefits[iii].  The technological, financial, and human resource hurdles to becoming an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) retail merchant are simply too high for many small community-run markets to climb.  With eligibility for this nutrition program 22% higher than it was last summer, the need to help farmers markets cross the digital divide has never been greater.  FMC is proud that FreshFarm Markets, working with the White House, has already taken steps to integrate EBT as well as WIC and Senior FMNP vouchers into its new market.

As Congress picks up where it left off with health care reform, let’s not let them forget that the path to a truly healthy America is not in a single act of legislation—it’s in the Child Nutrition Reauthorization, the Farm Bill, and even the Food Safety Enhancement Act.   It is within us as a nation to ensure that these acts strengthen, not diminish, the integrity of locally-based agricultural entrepreneurship, honor farming as a viable career path, and expand fresh food access for consumers everywhere.  In the end, healthy food systems mean healthy people.

If the nation can spend billions in ‘Cash for Clunkers,’ why can it not invest a fraction of that amount in farmers markets, helping them hire staff, host educational fresh produce preparation demonstrations, foster entrepreneurship, and implement SNAP/EBT?   This would be a truly green investment with a triple bottom line.

Hopefully, this powerful symbolic gesture will be just the beginning.

Learn more about the Farmers Market Coalition’s efforts to strengthen farmers markets at www.farmersmarketcoalition.org

[i] USDA Food and Nutrition Service. (2009). WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program. Available at http://www.fns.usda.gov/wic/FMNP/FMNPfaqs.htm.

[ii] USDA Food and Nutrition Service. (2009). Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program. Available at http://www.fns.usda.gov/wic/SeniorFMNP/SFMNPmenu.htm.

[iii] USDA Food and Nutrition Service. (2009). EBT Farmers Market Projects Status. Available at http://www.fns.usda.gov/fsp/ebt/ebt_farmers_markstatus.htm.