By Patrick Howard
A demand for fresh, local produce has boosted a statewide uptick in the number of farmers markets.
And a state grant program aims at ensuring low-income communities don’t miss out on such opportunities.
Katharine Czarnecki, community programs manager at the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC), the agency that provides the grants, said farmers markets benefit both job creation and health and create social bonds that help communities.
Czarnecki said the agency developed the Farm to Food grant program in 2010 to help three areas: urban development, agricultural infrastructure and a “passive solar system loan fund” used to construct “hoop houses” that can grow vegetables year-round.
The urban development portion of the program provides incentives to so-called entitlement communities – identified by federal law – for projects and educational programs that include low-income and minority residents, Czarnecki said.
Tom Kalchik, assistant director of the Michigan State University Product Center, said the program is particularly beneficial to low-income areas, which he says are often deprived of fresh food sources.
He said both urban and rural areas are often called “food deserts” – a reference to areas where healthy, affordable food can be difficult to find.
Kalchik cited reports by Mintel, a market research firm, indicating a strong consumer trend toward buying local products. He said the most encouraging part of those reports is that the trend is both long-term and not limited to any particular social class.
“There is a demand for fresh, local products, even with low-income people,” he said. “I think people want both a better connection to who is providing their food and better health.”
Mary Gerstenberger, consumer horticulture manager for Macomb County’s Michigan State University Extension, said the grant program is encouraging but that farmers markets in several targeted areas already took big steps to increase the ways they serve their communities.
She said the extension program emphasizes building community food systems that connect growers to consumers and farmers markets to local schools and hospitals.
Gerstenberger said people will “go with what they can afford, which is typically local fast-food restaurants,” and that farmers markets are often scarce in low-income areas.
She said the Mount Clemens Farmers Market is at the forefront of customer diversity and seems to truly grasp what community food systems are all about.
According to the Mount Clemens market, it received a grant in 2006, which proved beneficial for the market and its customers. However, it also noted that the grants are often small and may not cover expenses for many projects it’s required to create.
One incentive in the grant program is EBT (Bridge Card) machines, which would expand the market significantly. Mount Clemens does not have EBT machines but is interested in acquiring them.
One farmers market that does employ EBT machines is Allen Street Farmers Market in Lansing, which local resident and Bridge Card carrier Emily Bradley said she is relieved about.
“Its nice to be able to buy stuff that is fresh… buy stuff that you know gives back to the local economy,” she said. “I guess for that reason I feel much better about using it than if I were just shopping at Kroger and Meijer all the time.”
According to Jennifer Holton of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Department of Human Services is trying harder than ever to integrate EBTs into farmers markets.
Noting the 88 percent increase in farmers markets that accept food stamps from 2010 to 2011, the agency’s expanded effort seems to be working, and data they provided proves it.
Holton said her department is pushing the idea of food hubs to function as a catalyst for farmers markets’ growth. Food hubs distribute locally grown products to local businesses.
The department also promotes grant programs similar to the MEDC’s and access to food hubs for rural and urban areas.
Jane Whitacre of the Michigan Food Policy Council said a multifaceted farmers market – serving the rich and poor, rural and urban, and expanding services to schools and hospitals – is part of what makes the MEDC’s incentive program so intriguing.
She said the MEDC, while seeking to expand the state economy through traditional business advocacy, understands the importance of local food and how it can bond communities while helping the economy grow.
“All classes of individuals can relate to food,” Whitacre said. “Ultimately, it has nothing to do with rich or poor and has more to do with lifestyle choices.”
She said as farmers markets around the state develop and expand, fresh local food will be more readily available at affordable prices for both low- and high-income residents.
“There is a powerful local food and grow-your-own kind of movement going on right now like we’ve never seen,” Whitacre said. “It’s a very exciting time for farmers and consumers everywhere.”