Farm Fresh

May 1, 2012, Department, by Megan McConville

Falls Church (Virginia) Farmers MarketFood in the United States travels an average of 1,300 miles to get to your plate from the farm. Because fresh fruits and vegetables are often shipped from distant locations to communities, products spend 7-14 days in transit before they arrive at your local grocer, limiting both the nutritional and financial value of the product. Low-income areas typically have one-third fewer grocery stores than middle and high-income neighborhoods, making availability and affordability of fresh produce a challenge.  To combat these issues, park and recreation agencies promote and sponsor local farmers’ markets which provide healthy options while simultaneously boosting the local economy.

Agencies play a vital role in the farmers’ market experience by attracting consumers and emphasizing the benefits these markets bring to a community. Park departments in Iowa City, Iowa , Knox County, Tennessee, and Falls Church, Virginia, have all partnered with local farmers and vendors to offer fresh produce and products weekly to their communities. Through market accessibility, strong promotion techniques, and new partnerships, these agencies have encouraged a focus on health and access to fresh foods while continuing to generate revenue and stimulate the local economy. 

Falls Church, Virginia 

The Falls Church Farmers Market is entering its 29th year of operation. Created and managed by the Falls Church Recreation & Parks Department, the market enhances the quality of life in the community. City residents gather at the market, shop, and interact with their neighbors, friends and fellow residents. 

Initially, Falls Church experienced challenges attracting customers and vendors. Through an aggressive marketing campaign—including creation of a market logo, directional signage throughout the city, and hanging informative banners through the city—the number of vendors has increased significantly since the market first opened. Additionally, the market is attracting hundreds of city-dwellers and has become so popular that local real estate agents  now use the proximity to the market as a selling point.

Iowa City, Iowa 

The Iowa City Farmers Market began in August1972, and has grown to be the largest farmers’ market in Johnson County. With a focus on providing healthy options and choices the market has instituted a 70:30 ratio for vendors, in which 70 percent sell produce, meats, cheeses, and other food type items and 30 percent  sell art and craft products. This ratio helps the market remain first and foremost a venue for farmers. 

Iowa City vendors report that customers return again and again—and that they often receive calls from customers asking to place special orders. By accepting electronic bank transfer (EBT) cards and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), all residents are able to make market purchases.  In addition, the market is located near a small community pocket park—a location instrumental in keeping people at the market longer and providing an open space to socialize before, during, and after the market.

Knox County, Tennessee 

Knox County Parks and Recreation opened their farmers market in May 2008 with the goal of combining recreation and leisure activities by reestablishing a traditional link between farmers and consumers. Through a partnership with the University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Department, Knox County was able to reach a  diverse  group of visitors and apply a number of new ideas and services. The additional exposure garnered through partnerships has contributed to an increase in facility rentals, and in June of last year the market welcomed over 22,000 visitors, including many attendees beyond that of the local neighborhood.

Knox County leveraged the success of the market to apply for community improvement grants. Knox County secured funds that enabled them to build a shade structure for the market.  By developing diverse cooperative relationships, Knox County has partnered with organizations such as Ijams Nature Center, UT/Pellissippi State Culinary Institute, and local media affiliates who have been significant assets in obtaining funding, as well as in the operation and sustainability of the market. 

As these communities illustrate, farmers markets enrich community health and livability while boosting the local economy. Farmers markets rejuvenate communities by offering access to a variety of fresh local produce to local communities and encouraging outdoor leisure while revitalizing the community. Good marketing techniques and insight into the needs of local consumers play a vital role in engaging and growing support for your market. Leveraging market successes and new partnerships attracts a wider audience.  As more park agencies develop and maintain local farmers markets, they should continue to reach more diverse populations, enhancing the quality of life for all community members.

Megan McConville is NRPA’s Health Coordinator.