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Making farmers markets a healthy priority in Southeast Connecticut

Posted: April 15, 2016

When Cindy Barry and her colleagues learned that the Centers for Disease Control recommend farmers markets as a community strategy to promote cardiovascular health, a light bulb came on.
Image: USDA, via Flickr

Image: USDA, via Flickr

Note: In 2015, the Agricultural Marketing Service Technical Assistance (AMSTA) project provided grant-writing workshops for potential applicants to the Farmers Market and Local Foods Promotion Programs. We followed up with several workshop participants who went on to secure funding. This article is the first in a series that will highlight the FMLFPP projects underway in our region.

As staff members of the Ledge Light Health District (LLHD) — the local health department for East Lyme, Groton, Ledyard, New London and Waterford, Connecticut — they had a sense that the existing farmers markets in their area weren’t meeting the needs of their community. They also had anecdotal evidence that farmers were frustrated with certain aspects of the farmers markets, too. So they wrote a proposal for an initiative that would improve the markets for farmers and consumers alike. Last year, they received funding from the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service Farmers Market Promotion Program, which set their plans into motion.

“In 2011, we conducted a survey to find out more about the people who were already shopping at the markets,” said Barry. “We found that the customer base really didn’t represent the community at all.” Instead of customers from diverse socio-economic backgrounds reflective of the population in Southeast Connecticut, the farmers market shoppers tended to be white, more educated, and affluent.

To get at why, they interviewed people from groups who were not shopping at the markets — people who lived in the area’s public housing, for example, and senior citizens. Their interviews revealed some big barriers.

“Transportation was a big thing. So was a feeling that the market wasn’t for them,” Barry said. “People were also really wanting one-stop shopping and the market didn’t offer that.

"...we [will] work with the senior centers to provide transportation to the market, reach out to the Latino community and...make the market a little broader in terms of the kinds of things being offered.... it's something that will add to and enhance the market, and hopefully move the needle in the right direction toward being inclusive of all residents.”

-- Cindy Barry

“That's why we wrote into our application that we would work with the senior centers to provide transportation to the market, reach out to the Latino community and why we’re trying to make the market a little broader in terms of the kinds of things being offered,” she said. "It's not rocket science. But it's something that will add to and enhance the market, and hopefully move the needle in the right direction toward being inclusive of all residents.”

But increasing the customer base is only half of the equation, said Barry, describing what she sees as a cyclic challenge: “You need vendors to get customers, and you need customers to keep your vendors.” Through previous work on a farm-to-school initiative, she learned a lot from area farmers about why they were not participating in farmers markets.

“We found that a lot of farmers were acting as the market managers and really weren’t necessarily savvy in terms of marketing and promotion. They weren’t able to design posters or build a website or do the things that we thought were essential to promoting farmers markets,” she said. “Some of our markets were floundering a bit, and I knew we could do so much better.”

She and her colleagues are planning a number of activities aimed at reviving the 18 markets in the county. First, they are establishing a Southeastern Connecticut Farmers Market Association to give farmers and market managers a forum for exchanging ideas and for accessing educational opportunities. During their first face-to-face meeting, which took place in December, a liaison from the Connecticut Department of Agriculture spoke about state resources and regulations. Their next meeting will feature sanitarians who will speak to the public health aspects of providing samples and tastings at their markets. In between meetings, a closed Facebook group allows the market managers to keep in touch about other topics.

Barry is also working with three vocational schools on an internship program, in which students can learn about agriculture by working on farms for credit. She is collaborating with partners to offer cooking demonstrations at every market. She is laying the groundwork for a new market in Groton City. And, she is doing plenty of hands-on promotional work on behalf of the area’s farmers markets, too. Whether reaching out to new vendors, speaking to rotary clubs and business associations, or placing both English and Spanish promotional ads, she feels building capacity for the markets is crucial.

Also crucial, of course, is the funding behind the programming. While she and her colleagues are no strangers to grant writing, she said they’re far more familiar with state grants than with federal grants like the FMPP. That’s why she attended the grant-writing training taught by Jiff Martin, University of Connecticut Extension, who was one of the educators on the AMSTA project. “Federal grants can be daunting,” Barry said. “Jiff made it so easy to understand. It took all the anxiety out of completing a federal application for me.”

For more information about the AMSTA grant-writing workshops, visit: http://www.amsta.net/