Bringing Farmers’ Markets and CSAs into Low-Income Neighborhoods

La Familia Verde Market founders Elizabeth Butler, Laura Washington, Doreth Weaver, Karen Washington and Ena Nemley. Photo provided by Just Food.

La Familia Verde Market founders Elizabeth Butler, Laura Washington, Doreth Weaver, Karen Washington and Ena Nemley. Photo provided by Just Food.

Local activist and urban gardener Karen Washington wanted to bring more fresh fruits and vegetables into her central Bronx community. But word on the street was that many farmers were afraid to come into Crotona or didn’t believe they’d be able to earn enough money to set up a farmers’ market in the low-income neighborhood.

So Washington and her fellow green thumbs at La Familia Verde, a coalition of five community gardens in the Bronx, started their own market.

“There’s a correlation between the health problems in our neighborhoods and the lack of fresh produce in our neighborhoods,” said Washington, one of the founders of La Familia Verde. The market was a step toward combating obesity and other nutrition-related diseases, she said.

They’ve hawked bright tomatoes, plump peppers and fresh collard greens grown on their community plots every summer and fall since 2003. The market was a hit with local residents, which eventually convinced a few farmers to join them.

But getting fresh fruits and vegetables into low-income communities through farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) isn’t always so successful.

Even when the demand is there, CSAs, which pay farmers up front for a season’s worth of produce, can be out of many people’s financial reach. Farmers’ markets also can be expensive. And a cultural divide can form when neighborhood outsiders set up well-intentioned programs in poorer communities without the support of local residents, Washington said.

Kristin Reynolds, who teaches and researches urban agriculture at the New School, said she’s starting to see more CSAs and farmers’ markets popping up in low-income areas. But the markets tend to be run by community residents, she said.

“There’s a demand for fresh, healthy and culturally acceptable products in low-income communities,” Reynolds said. “But there may also be cultural barriers [to setting up initiatives].”

Those barriers became problematic for Added Value, a nonprofit organization that runs farms in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and on Governors Island.

The group started a farmers’ market in Red Hook about 10 years ago, which initially drew residents of nearby public housing projects along with wealthier transplants, said farm manager Kristen Schafenacker. But over the years, support from the poorer community dwindled.

Last year, the farm filled only a handful of its reduced-cost CSA shares and just 10 percent of the market’s sales came from people on public assistance, she said.

“[Over the years,] our relationships with the community dwindled,” Schafenacker noted. “[Now] the customers at the market don’t represent the community demographically.”

Schafenacker now hopes to rebuild those bridges and get more residents involved with urban farming through outreach and a healthy eating and exercise program.

“This is an issue that’s happening with a lot of nonprofit organizations trying to engage community members [when] a lot of the staff…are coming from outside the neighborhood,” she said. “Newcomers have a barrier or hurdle, which is getting to know the community, the community needs and, in a sense, being accepted by the community and trusted.”

Meanwhile, Just Food, a local food-advocacy nonprofit group, has increased the amount of fresh produce going into poor communities by accepting food stamps and offering flexible payment options for CSAs.

“We’re seeing more demand for CSAs across the board,” said Paula Lukats, the program manager for Just Food’s city CSAs. “Our philosophy when starting a CSA is having it be community-driven rather than us deciding what communities need.”

That community approach, coupled with low prices, has been integral to the success of La Familia Verde market, said Washington.

“There’s no mistake about it that low-income neighborhoods want fresh vegetables. But what you need to do is ask the community what they want first,” Washington noted. “If people don’t feel invested in it, it’s not going to work.”

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