Food for thought: the farmers market as a model for redevelopment

Steve Bruns, MPP, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

In a poll conducted last year, the Washington Post posed the following question to assess perceptions of redevelopment in DC: As you may know, the District government is trying to redevelop parts of the city to attract new businesses and residents. Do you think this process of redevelopment is mainly good or mainly bad for people like you?

Responses depended largely on race. An overwhelming majority of white respondents (86%) saw DC’s redevelopment efforts as beneficial, while a majority of African Americans (55%) said that redevelopment does not benefit them. This disparity is troubling, and it begs the question: Can DC’s ongoing revitalization include and benefit all of us, not just some of us?

Despite steady economic and population growth since the early 2000s, DC still ranks fifth in terms of income inequality among the 50 largest cities in the country. The city is also highly unequal in terms of racial and ethnic geographic distribution. For insight into a more economically and racially mixed version of DC, I suggest a visit to your nearest farmers market. Each of the city’s 55 markets offers benefit programs that could serve as a model for more equitable and inclusive redevelopment.

Since 2014, DC’s Produce Plus Program has increased access to all the city’s farmers markets by distributing two $5 checks to low-income residents each market day.  Residents receive these checks based on participation in programs like SNAP (food stamps), TANF, WIC, Medicaid, and other welfare programs.

Additionally, many of the city’s markets administer benefits independently from Produce Plus. Robin Shuster, director of the U Street and Bloomingdale farmers markets, believes that “our markets should be welcoming and accessible to everyone in their communities and we have robust food access programs to make that possible.” The U Street and Bloomingdale farmers markets operate a bonus-matching program where if you spend $10 of your qualifying benefit at the market, the market will match that with another $10 to spend, turning $10 into $20.

These two policies alone make the farmers markets a more inclusive space where, as one of Shuster’s market managers puts it, “all can share in the bounty of the good earth.” I help Shuster run the Produce Plus and bonus-matching programs at the U Street and Bloomingdale farmers markets . My firsthand observations found that the markets blend race, culture, and language unlike any other place in DC. On an average market day you’ll find me describing the bonus-matching program in Spanish, using my iPhone to translate a customer’s question from Mandarin into English, or listening to a longtime resident thank the good Lord for bringing her to the market that day. No matter the differences in language or cultural background, I can tell visitors are happy to find out they can buy not just fruits and vegetables but also meat, eggs, and cheese with their bonus tokens. Shuster says, “farmers markets create community gathering places where neighbors of all kinds can meet once a week and get to know each other better.”

This perceived level of inclusivity at the farmers market may come as a surprise given that items sold at farmers markets are generally more expensive. For instance, a recent study of WIC families in Illinois found that prices for produce were lower at grocery stores than at farmers markets.  Nonetheless, programs like Produce Plus are an important step towards inclusivity. If farmers markets have implemented policies that increase access and affordability in support of a more diverse customer base, why can’t DC’s new coffee shops, restaurants, and grocery stores do the same?

In addition to promoting equity at farmers markets, incentive programs like Produce Plus and bonus-matching have economic value. The City of San Francisco offers a bonus-matching program at its farmers markets, and the city maintains that every $5 it spends on the matching program generates $9 in economic activity. This indicates that increasing residents’ purchasing power increases their willingness to purchase more, and this is true nationwide. According to a two-year analysis of four different farmers market matching programs, customers using food stamps bought more produce because of the matching program. Perhaps similar policies could work for DC’s newly developed brick and mortar businesses.

With a significant portion of DC residents feeling that development has taken place without their well-being in mind, it is essential to the fabric of the community to identify equitable growth opportunities. The city’s farmers markets offer a model that might be worth replicating from the ground up.

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