Developing and changing policy that impacts farmers markets
All of us here are somehow tied to the success of farmers markets. We rely on them for some form of community development, food access, local economy, etc. Despite these reliances and ways in which they make our communities and regions better places, farmers markets struggle to live within our communities. Some key challenges that inhibit or prohibit some markets from actualizing are tenuous land use, convoluted and complex permitting processes, misidentified as unrelated events. These are similar challenges to many other forms of urban agriculture, like urban gardens and direct to consumer opportunities. Situations very, as relationships vary, from community to community, but in general, these challenges are faced by all markets at one time in their life.
Like other forms of urban agriculture, most farmers markets have managers that organize all of the small farmers in the region, get the support of the community, set up and take down equipment, arrange for services, and manage staff, volunteers and grants necessary to run most nonprofit markets. In addition to this, which is essentially what many nonprofits have to tackle, there are many procedures a market must go through that other nonprofits don’t have to go through before they can become a vibrant space, even if just for a few hours a week. Outside of following food ordinances, and in some states like CA, registering with the Dept of Food and Ag to become certified, they have to think about their capacity for placemaking (or, their ability to create an atmosphere that is inviting and foments community engagement) in addition to securing some kind of land tenure. This can be overwhelming on a shoestring budget and a volunteer-based staff. We end up muddling through a type of troubleshooting process that seems more organic than procedural. However, these are the realities and this is where we’re at and why we need a change in policy and supporting processes in place on the city and county-wide level, which was the crux of my presentation at the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) 15th National Conference on November 5th with the Farmers Market Coalition.
The down and dirty of the current situation, though there certainly are outliers and good examples of how these barriers have been overcome and bridges have been made, is that there are multiple permits and zoning codes that markets have to fill out and fit within; there are miscommunications between them and the planning offices and miscommunications between the city and county offices that administer and process these permits. This last one turns out to be an even greater problem than the former. All great change has great challenges that come from within, and this is no different then the problems experienced within local government offices that market managers and organizations have to work with.
The audience was comprised of professionals from a gamut of fields, such as city government, organizations that worked within or closely with local government, market managers and umbrella organizations, researchers and community organizers, to name a few. As we moved forward in this presentation I asked a bunch of questions with some suggested responses, which are above. I asked them to hold onto these questions for conversations we’ll all have with each other throughout this conference.
We then delved into the detailed questions of Why, Who and What:
Why do we need change?:
Change seems to be on the tips of everyone’s tongues these days. It is loaded with all kinds of hopes and expectations. We all know that we need to dream big and act small to create any change. There are many paths that we can take that will lead us there. Some suggestions that are core to beginning this dialog involve keeping the lines of communication open, involve communities, market managers, customers (current and future), planning offices, champion government officials and local businesses and professionals. We talked more about this in the next section on partnership building, but it’s important to keep in mind that there are many pieces to this puzzle and all need to be accounted for in order to paint the big picture.
Markets have always been gathering spaces for us all. They are providers of fresh foods in areas that have little access to them, a chance for us to know our farmers, and an opportunity to build wealth in our regions. Every dollar you spend at a farmers market stays in that region. Every SNAP dollar you spend at the market has a two-fold benefit to the place. Market Umbrella in New Orleans has developed an indicator tool that gets at this more aptly. These local dollars are unlike the dollars you spend at a super market that has many other relationships outside of your state that get a piece of that dollar.
Additionally, markets are a platform for education about commerce, healthy eating and social connections (social capital is just as important as economic capital), though less quantifiably tangible. These are all great reasons why we support our farmers and the markets they vend at in our communities, tangentially supporting our consumers and the communities they live within.
What can Cities and Counties do?:
So, now that we have some language about why we need change, whom do we talk to and how? Additionally, what kind of recommendations can we bring to the table when we get connected to the who and find the how?
When we approach cities and counties we should not cdo so exclusively, rather, we should think of them as apart of our larger famers’ market community who will have things they can do on their own as contributors, as well as things that they will have to do together in order to create the kind of fluid and lifelong change we are asking for. For example, city and county offices, whether they are planning offices, public health departments, mayoral offices, or local SNAP and WIC agencies, can all play a role in bridging the gap between producer and consumer by approaching markets as a public good that needs both public and private investment and support.
In general, the “who” we’re addressing here is city and county government in this particular case. Some local governments, by not acknowledging farmers markets in their codes, have no choice but to fit a square peg into a round hole. This means that they apply the same regulatory and tax structure to nonprofit farmers market organizations as they do to privately owned brick and mortar retailers. Many successful markets have worked with cities to reduce rental fees for markets that are housed on city owned property, collaborated to coordinate trash and security, worked with other offices to define farmers’ markets and have gotten them written into zoning codes and comprehensive plans. These movements toward change benefits the markets, consumers and communities, but also makes it a lot easier for the staff at these offices to do their job.
So, we are arguing for more clear communications here that streamline processes and aggregate them into a centralized location. Many city permits contradict county permits. Often, both are required. This is very confusing for all involved and is often left to oversight. Though, here we are approaching these issues together so that we can address them and stop them from being pushed under the rug because they require hashing through details and troubleshooting through problems that can be daunting when one looks at all the different policy pieces that need to be aligned. Lets get our ducks in a row and have a feast at our farmers’ markets.
Examples of farmers markets operating on city-owned land;
1. City and county involvement in farmers markets can take a variety of forms. Some city governments host and manage farmers markets, such as the Market at the Square in Urbana, Illinois, or the City Market in Charlottesville, Virginia.
2. To encourage the proliferation of farmers markets on city property, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors elected to waive fees for farmers markets operating in city parks.
Examples of farmers markets that work with city government to secure other services;
1. Farmers market advocates in Seattle, Washington worked with the city’s Office of Economic Development on an ordinance that reduces fees for street closures and use of parks, as well as streamlines the permit application process.
2. The Park and Recreation Department in Charlottesville, Virginia manages the City Market and developed a partnership with the Jefferson Area Board on Aging to manage SNAP acceptance at the market, which also offers a matching incentive program with private funding from Wholesome Wave.
Cities have a large voice, but can’t operate without cohesion with their larger counterpart, the county or regional government structures. County governments are unique in the fact that they bring rural, suburban and urban interests together. Given this vantage point, they are able to compose comprehensive plans that provide long-range land use designations and delineate zoning jurisdictions that can do amazing things like preserve farmland and allow for diversified production that enables farmers to bring the many items we see at our beloved farmers markets. By doing so, county offices also have the ability to create an overall vision for a vibrant, economically viable food system that’s accessible by all. They can enliven underutilized space and vacant lots by annotating spaces that could potentially host a farmers market, as well as identify places for complementary purposes like urban farms and community gardens. This is a big deal. We don’t want to leave these guys out of the conversation. It gets even more confusing, though, because the offices that have these tools are called by different names in different regions and states. You’re going to have to get intimate with your government officials and get to know exacting who in your community is responsible for planning, health and policy.
Examples of farmers markets being written into comprehensive plans;
1. Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, is considering new city rules for allowing markets to prosper on inactive parcels through amendments to four zoning categories, both business and residential
Examples of county government talking with city government to streamline supportive processes for farmers markets;
2. The Multnomah County Commissioners in Oregon adopted a resolution that puts into place a 15 year plan for Local Food, Healthy Eating, Social Equity, Economic Vitality. Objectives specifically incorporating farmers markets are a) to increase the acceptance of SNAP/WIC, b) establish more local food hubs, and c) ensure regulatory support for food production
3. In 2010, the Maryland legislature passed SB 198, instituting a Producer Mobile Farmers Market License that effectively prohibited municipalities from enacting any food safety licensing fees above and beyond those required by the state
4. The San Francisco Department of Public Health has led interagency food system planning in San Francisco, California, since 2002. We report on one of the interventions within that initiative—a partnership between a public health agency, a local nonprofit organization, and the local food stamp program to institutionalize improved access to farmers’ markets for federal food assistance beneficiaries. San Francisco city government passed an ordinance that mandates all farmers’ markets operating within the city to accept SNAP and the city will incur the bill for operating the POS machine if the market cannot, and allows third party processors to host these machines on behalf of the market.
Examples of State government working with nonprofits and communities to support farmers markets and change policy;
1. In California, the Healthy Eating Healthy Living Cities Campaign catalogues municipal policies that encourage physical activity and access to nutritious foods. As their website states, “cities can support local agriculture and bring healthy food to residents by defining farmers markets in the general plan and zoning code and encouraging them to accept the electronic benefit transfer card (EBT) and WIC coupons.
2. Programs like the California Farmers’ Market Consortium (CFMC), a statewide partnership managed by Roots of Change (ROC), is dedicated to improving healthy food access within disadvantaged communities while increasing the incomes of farmers selling fresh fruits and vegetables to SNAP and WIC customers. This project is made possible through a SCBG, in addition to private fundraising efforts. Government agencies and nonprofit organizations at state and local levels can play a large role in facilitating similar programs.
3. California also supplies all markets with a free wireless POS device to accept SNAP benefits.
What can we do to help them change?:
Ultimately, the government is concerned with many of the same things that you all are concerned about; including health, hygiene, community, and local economics. We all want to prosper and farmers’ markets represent a microcosm of ways that we can.
We can work with local businesses to gain support for markets establishing in their neighborhood, advocate for streamlined policies, partner with each other to build a movement and a larger voice to set examples across the country, and work with your government offices and advocate for their leadership.
I don’t have the answers. I have some suggestions, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution to these types of complicated projects. What we can do is collaborate and ask similar questions and then revisit them as a group. By crafting some answers we can develop more refined tools to foster change. I’d like to revisit some of these questions again with you all…
1. Why do we need to provide farmers markets secure land tenure?
2. Why do we support EBT at farmers markets?
3. What does this mean for our community landscapes?
4. What does this mean for our local food access?
5. What does this mean for our regional farmers?
6. What were some key ideas we can takeaway from examples of successful farmers markets?
7. What role did city and county government play in these successful examples?
8. What role did local organizations play in these successful examples?
9. How do some farmers markets become more permanent spaces while others don’t?
10. How can cities and counties better support these efforts?
11. How can we support food access projects at the local level to influence a change in the SNAP administration at farmers’ markets?
Lastly, you are not alone in this change-making. There are several organizations working to foment this change all across the country, some even in your backyards. I encourage you to make friends and utilize the resources out there. One of the worse things a nonprofit working in food systems can do is negate the work that has already been done or get too caught up in the immediacy of it all to look around and see the parallels out there. It takes less time to do these things then it does to reinvent the wheel.
1. Resource for jurisdictions interested in re-evaluating sanitation policies related to farmers markets is available via the doc “ From the Field to the Table: Suggested Food Handling for Farmers Markets, Fairs, and Festivals.” put out by FMC.
2. Public Health Law & Policy (PHLP) provides legal information on matters relating to public health and have published documents in “Establishing Land Use Protections for Farmers’ Markets,” for example, offers examples of municipalities integrating markets into their city’s general plans and model land use policies for supporting and protecting farmers markets and the farmers on which they depend
3. Market Umbrella market has an online service that helps markets conduct an economic impact evaluation that can then be take to gov officials in support of streamlining planning and permitting processes for these projects.
4. County-Specific Obesity, Diabetes, and Physical Inactivity Prevalence Data (CDC)
5. Food Environment Atlas (USDA)
6. Food Desert Locator (USDA)
7. National Farmers Market Directory