Thursday, October 7, 2010

Juniper Gardens Farmers Market: Update!

The following article was written by our very own Ami Freeburg for the most recent issue of Urban Grown, KCCUA's newsletter. Enjoy!

Efforts To Boost Juniper Gardens Farmers Market Pay Off
Refugee farmers succeed after two seasons of sluggish sales.

By Ami Freeburg

Many people grumble when Monday rolls around and they have to return to work after a relaxing or rowdy weekend. For me, Monday has become my favorite day of the week since the official opening of the Juniper Gardens Farmers Market in July. The days are always a little chaotic with farmers coming and going, setting up their displays among early-bird customers waiting to make their purchases or with windy days blowing down tents. But it’s fun and always an adventure.

The market is located adjacent to the Juniper Gardens Training Farm on the corner of Third Street and Richmond Avenue, in Kansas City, KS. It began in September 2008 at the end of the first New Roots for Refugees growing season. With little advertising or outreach to the community, the market remained small. About five or six farmers would sell each week. Weekly customers barely exceeded the number of growers, so sales were low for the first two seasons. This summer marked a transformation at the Juniper Gardens Farmers Market. In July, the Kansas City Beans&Greens program debuted at the market, matching purchases made through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps). At the same time we launched an outreach campaign involving newspaper advertising, radio spots, door hangers and fliers. At the first official market, sales and attendance improved significantly from the past two years, but it was just a foreshadowing of what was to come.
Each week this season the market has grown. A dozen or more vendors are setting up weekly, and customer attendance has soared. At first, Catholic Charities, one of the partners of the New Roots for Refugees program, sent a bus around to neighboring refugee communities to bring customers to the market. Many Burmese families arrived on the bus and were excited to find chin baung, bitter melons and Burmese pumpkins. After a couple of weeks, the customers started coming on their own, bringing vans full of their friends and neighbors. At first the customers spent only a small amount of SNAP dollars (plus the match) but the average SNAP charge quickly increased, with many families wanting to exceed the $30 daily limit for the match. Bunches of chin baung flew off the tables and the farmers hurried back to their fields to harvest more.

Catholic Charities' Rachel Bonar, coordinator of the New Roots for Refugees program, noted the difference in the farmer-customer interactions when refugees sold to their own communities, with which they share a common language and food culture. In the beginning, the goal of the training farm marketing efforts had been to sell to customers at the higher end markets like Brookside and Overland Park. Many of the New Roots farmers have been successful at these markets, but it has taken time to adapt to the preferences of the customers and to develop communication in the face of language barriers. It has been eye-opening and inspiring to see the Burmese farmers have as much, if not more, success marketing to their own ethnic communities. Rachel also noticed that, having gained more experience selling in their own language, the farmers seemed to have a greater level of comfort and ease in communication with English-speaking customers. Seeing this transformation has lead to the idea of starting a new market in Northeast Kansas City, MO, where many of the African communities live. We have started conversations to create this market next year so that the Somali, Burundian and Sudanese farmers can sell to their own communities.

Another aspect of the Juniper Gardens Farmers Market is the challenge of integrating into the primarily African-American community. The area is a food desert, with fresh produce hard to come by. Many residents have lost the knowledge of how to prepare and eat fresh vegetables. In order to respond to this need, KCCUA is working with The Family Conservancy, which teaches a Healthy Parents, Healthy Kids class at the local community center. The idea is to work with a Healthy Eating Education Team to promote the market in the neighborhood, as well as to do cooking demonstrations using fresh vegetables from the farmers. Shifting the food culture of the Juniper Gardens neighborhood to include healthier, nutritious options will take time, but working with people from the area who are excited about fresh vegetables is a good first step.

Seeing the market grow so quickly in just a few months has been inspiring and rewarding for us, but even more so for the farmers. October 4 is the last market of the season, and everybody is talking about ideas for how to continue to improve next season. I am already anticipating next season because it gives me a great reason to be excited when Mondays roll around!

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