by Marilyn Anthony
Farmer Anita McCann Hepler piled bushels of freshly picked sweet corn on her table at the 4th Street and Lehigh Avenue Food Trust farmers market and watched, puzzled—week after week—as none of the mostly Hispanic shoppers bought a single ear. One day, Hepler peeled back a few corn husks for a Food Trust photo shoot. Suddenly, a young Hispanic woman called out, “Maiz, maiz!” and shoppers descended on the table. They had not recognized that corn was behind the leaves, an insight Hepler found shocking and motivating.
Finding the right farmers with the right products at the right price—and then effectively marketing to shoppers—are ongoing challenges addressed by the Food Trust and Farm to City, organizations that collectively manage 43 farmers markets in the Philly region.
Nicky Uy, the Food Trust’s senior associate for farmers market programs, attributes Philadelphia’s increase in farmers markets to two key factors: The city’s diverse populations all like to eat good food, and federal health programs now support farmers markets as “public health interventions.” According to Uy, “80 percent of our 28 market locations are in neighborhoods with the highest need [for food access], such as 4th and Lehigh, Strawberry Mansion, Hunting Park and Germantown.” Farm to City, by contrast, tries to place markets in mixed income locations such as Dickinson Square in South Philadelphia’s Pennsport neighborhood.
Uy believes lack of access is the greatest barrier to healthy eating in low-income communities. But product familiarity, affordability and lack of convenience pose significant challenges as well.
Rural farmers can be unfamiliar with the food preferences of diverse urban populations. To convey customers’ requests to growers, market managers can act as translators. Their advice may require simple adjustments for the farmers, like leaving the turnip greens on the turnips, selling pumpkin as a staple vegetable—not just a seasonal pie ingredient—or harvesting okra at “thumb size” for the most culinary appeal.
For Hepler, transitioning her third-generation, 60-acre New Jersey farm from wholesale to direct-to-consumer sales meant learning what—and also how—to sell at eight ethnically distinct farmers markets in Philadelphia. African-American shoppers at her 26th Street and Allegheny Avenue market, for instance, asked for products that McCann Farm had never grown: collards, sweet potatoes, okra, kale and squashes. Because Hepler and her sister, Nancy McCann Foy, strive to become part of the communities they sell to, they expanded their vegetable line.
At all their urban markets, Hepler finds that shoppers are often limited by their rudimentary cooking ability. She believes that teaching very basic cooking skills, such as peeling and cutting, would enable more shoppers to buy raw foods. Unable to use their portable stoves one day, Food Trust educators demonstrated how to peel and slice Hepler’s fresh peaches. Sales soared, Hepler says, because buyers did not like the peach fuzz or know how to skin a peach.
Stringent food safety regulation, however, undermines the intent of cooking demonstrations at markets. For example, Philadelphia Department of Health regulations prohibit on-site cutting of raw vegetables for inclusion in raw dishes. For a salsa demonstration, canned tomatoes had to be substituted for fresh. The way Hepler sees it, “we’re teaching people to use a can opener” instead of promoting fresh food consumption.
Farmers Trey and Deirdre Flemming operate Two Gander Farm, and grow organic vegetables on 10 acres in the Downingtown area. They sell at two markets managed by Farm to City: one in Bryn Mawr and the other at Philadelphia’s Dickinson Square. The Flemmings base their product line on eight years of farmers market experience and a careful analysis of what is profitable. “I stopped listening to what food trends The New York Times was predicting and listened instead to our neighborhoods,” Deirdre says.
Trey reflects on the disparate food needs of the affluent Bryn Mawr “foodies” and the polyglot shoppers who frequent the Dickinson Square market in the way he retails his organic vegetables: The Main Line shopper looks for pristine appearance and unique flavor profiles, purchasing specialty items such as heirloom tomatoes, fennel and radicchio by the piece. Two Gander’s urban customers are more likely to buy in bulk, looking for half bushels of sauce tomatoes or bunching greens such as kale, and quarts of broccoli.
Up to 25 percent of Two Gander’s sales at the Dickinson market are from Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) vouchers. Hepler says that most days she takes in as little as $30 in cash at her Food Trust markets. All the rest of her “considerable” sales are through subsidies, including assistance programs such as Philly Food Bucks and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Funded through the Federal Farm Bill, FMNP provided $19 million worth of coupons in 2014 to low-income seniors and eligible women with infants and children. FMNP coupons can only be exchanged for fresh foods at farmers markets. This may soundlike a considerable amount of money, but it’s barely a trickle. The federal FMNP program allows “for a household or individual… no more than $50 per each farmers market calendar year.” The Flemmings and Hepler cite customers who save up their season’s worth of FMNP coupons just to purchase vegetables for Thanksgiving.
Federal programs exclude the purchase of any processed foods. Hepler knows her customers would buy more vegetables if they were lightly processed—such as cut collards or peeled and cubed butternut squash—a convenience trend already established in mainstream grocery stores, but denied to FMNP and SNAP shoppers.
Despite the challenges and the significant time and labor involved in farmers markets, the Flemmings and Hepler value their urban customers.
“We farm because we want to be stewards of the land and do something good for the local economy,” Trey Flemming explains. “We also want to see that our organic food is getting to people that need and appreciate it. That includes Bryn Mawr customers and our Dickinson Square customers, too.”
Hepler, whose family has farmed since 1951, says, “On the farm, you don’t see where the need is until you’re there in the city and you see the people who are going to buy it and eat it. It makes a huge difference in your heart. You kind of love what you do again when you see what people need.”
For more information about nutrition assistance or local farmers markets please visit the Food Trust at www.thefoodtrust.org