How to Bring Farmers Markets to the Urban Poor

For almost 20 years, I’ve sold tomatoes, basil, lettuce, kale and other vegetables at the Takoma Park Farmers Market on Sundays during the summer season. It’s one of several markets my wife helped start at the dawn of the farmers market movement.

Last month, I spent a day selling for the first time at another market in Takoma Park — the Crossroads Farmers Market, open on Wednesdays. Though Crossroads is just two miles from the Sunday market, the customers couldn’t be more different. Crossroads is located in the poorest of Takoma Park’s four neighborhoods and also serves Langley Park and other low-income areas nearby.

Here, people speak mostly Spanish. Customers can find kabocha squash, chipilin and other staples of Central American kitchens, as well as pupusas, tostadas and other prepared foods. I saw fewer white faces at Crossroads. I heard fewer questions about whether produce was sprayed with chemicals and many more about how much everything cost. At Crossroads, shoppers measure every dollar against an unforgiving budget. Many go home with potatoes or onions, but not both.

The Sunday market was established in 1982, when farmers markets were more novel . No one knew whether customers would show up. Now that Takoma Park has two markets — one with a relatively affluent clientele, the other whose customers are struggling — it’s time to think about how the market with deeper pockets can better serve all the city’s residents.

Crossroads was established in 2007 to respond to the uncomfortable reality that the wildly successful Sunday market served mostly the well-to-do. Organized by a former journalist who sold baked goods and was troubled by the class biases of the Sunday market’s customer base, Crossroads was founded to offer the farmers market experience to low-income people. It achieves this not just with its location in a poor neighborhood and its accessibility by bus, but by offering a friendly environment for people to apply for food stamps and women’s nutrition programs on site. Maryland ranks 42nd in the nation in food stamp enrollment, with more than 150,000 eligible people not receiving them. With musicians performing and the smells of familiar foods in the air, Crossroads is a welcoming spot to apply for public benefits.

But it is the additional financial resources that make the real difference at Crossroads. Customers can use food stamps and vouchers specifically created to attract participants in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and the elderly.

Most important, Crossroads was one of the first markets in the country to raise private money to supplement food stamps and nutrition-assistance grants. For every dollar a low-income mother-to-be spends at Crossroads with her benefits, for example, she can receive an equal amount in market coupons — called Fresh Checks — doubling her purchasing power.

According to program manager Michelle Dudley, in seven years, Crossroads has raised more than $250,000 to help low-income customers buy fresh food — and, in turn, help make it worthwhile for farmers to sell there. So far this year, about a third of the money paid to vendors at Crossroads has come from government programs, but close to half has come from Fresh Checks. These figures suggest that, to reach those in poverty, farmers markets need private programs as well as federal subsidies.