Improving Access at NC Farmers Markets – NC Food Desert Committee Presentation


By Charlie Jackson

I was invited by the North Carolina House Committee on Food Desert Zones to come to Raleigh and give them a presentation on increasing access at NC farmers markets by low income communities. I made my presentation to the committee on February  24, 2014. This is approximately what I said based on my speaker notes.

The recommendations at the end were all in my presentation and the slides (sans notes) can be viewed at the Committee website.

Farmers Markets in NC: Opportunities and Barriers

I am Charlie Jackson, a founder and Executive Director of ASAP, the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. ASAP is a nonprofit organization headquartered in Asheville but working throughout the state and country.  ASAP’s mission is to help local farms thrive, link farmers to markets and supporters, and build healthy communities through connections to local food. We work to accomplish our mission through a range of activities and initiatives designed to build regional capacity, drive demand for local food, and make connections across the food system.

Our vision is of strong farms, thriving local food economies, and healthy communities where farming is valued as central to our heritage and our future.

North Carolina’s Markets

Thank you for inviting me to speak to this committee on this important topic. I have been asked to talk to you today about independent farmers markets in North Carolina, specifically on what it takes to start and run a market, and that this committee is particularly interested in any regulatory barriers to opening and running a farmers market with concrete recommendations on how to address those barriers. I have also been asked to provide specific policy recommendations on how to increase access to healthy food to low income communities and how to connect low income communities to farmers markets.

In North Carolina there are both opportunities and barriers for farmers markets as well as opportunities and barriers for connecting low-income shoppers to the markets.

Let me first say that North Carolina should be proud that we have innovative farmers creating new market opportunities through farmers markets, reducing the distance between themselves and what they grow to the people who eat their food. We should also be proud and encouraged that so many North Carolinians are seeking out connections to the farmers who grow their food, and want to support their local economies and local communities. North Carolina is a recognized national leader, ranking 10th in the nation for total number of farmers markets in the US.

According to the USDA, there are 231 farmers markets in communities across the state. 92 of North Carolina’s 100 counties contain at least one farmers market. Buncombe, the county where my organization is located, and Mecklenburg County contain the most markets with 14 each, followed closely by Wake with 13.

80% of  North Carolina’s markets operate seasonally and the markets average 20-30 vendors and an estimated 90% of markets hosting around  600 customers per market day.

Starting and Operating a Farmers Market in North Carolina

At the state level there are no specific regulatory requirements governing the starting of farmers markets. Markets are started for a wide variety of reasons and by a wide variety of individuals. They may be very informal, from a group of farmers deciding to regularly meet at a particular place at specific time to more formal beginnings that are initiated by local governments, Cooperative Extension offices, community organizations, churches,  public health agencies, and even local business owners who would like the customer draw of markets or who want to contribute to community betterment by providing a place for farmers to sell what they grow.

The running of markets varies widely as well. Some have formal rules that govern the market and paid managers. These markets frequently charge vendor fees to cover their management and marketing costs as well as any other costs associated with running the markets. These market expenses might range from rent on the property they occupy, leasing of space for customer parking, location improvements like electricity or water, and other costs that differ between markets and locations.

Organized and formal markets have regular planning meetings and they have mechanisms for determining who can sell at the market (most markets have space limitations). Many markets across the state are having these meetings now, gearing up for the start of markets as spring and summer fruits and vegetables begin coming to market.

And though most markets in the state are seasonal, an exciting trend in the last few years has been the growth in the number of year-round and winter markets. North Carolinians just can’t get enough locally grown food and farmers are responding with more products and extended seasons.

Issues that commonly face markets and market vendors, be they in the startup phase or long-running, include:

  • Getting enough farmers
  • Getting enough customers
  • Liability Insurance and/or Hold Harmless Agreements for owners of property where market is located
  • Product Liability insurance (especially for value-added, meat, and dairy producers, or for tastings)
  • Directors and Officers Liability for markets incorporated as nonprofits to protect board of directors in the event of a lawsuit
  • Workers Compensation and Unemployment Insurance if markets have employees (and other regulations governing hiring of employees)
  • Local zoning and zoning permits
  • Permits to build any structures
  • Permits for playing music or holding special events
  • Health permits for food demonstrations and sampling at market
  • Permits for road closures
  • State or local sales tax permits
  • Other permits or licenses as required by local governments

According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, farmer direct sales in NC in totaled over $29 million, up nearly 70% from 2002, the year of the previous Census. Of course not all of these sales were at farmers markets, but the numbers do indicate the importance of direct sales for farmers and for consumers.

Opportunities at NC Farmers Markets

Markets are frequently made up of a diversity of vendors, both farmer and non-farmer. Another exciting trend we have seen over the last decade is the growth in the variety of products available at markets – markets now routinely have farmers selling meats and cheese, and other dairy products they produce, as well as processed farm products. NCDA, Extension, and many others should be recognized and commended for facilitating this.

North Carolina farmers markets are incubators for starting businesses. The relatively low barrier of entry into the marketplace provides entrepreneurs and innovators a place to try new things, create new products, start bakeries or other food businesses, and many then expanding to other market venues like restaurants and grocery stores.

Historically, markets have been the crossroads of commerce from which our cities and communities emerged.  They continue to serve that function today, being the place that farmers and entrepreneurs can come together with the community to generate new businesses, businesses that are grounded and connected to their communities.

Other opportunities include enhanced partnerships with local government, local organizations,  and the public health community. Increasingly in NC and across the country markets are recognized as providing a community benefit that extends far beyond the opportunities for the farmers and other small businesses that sell at the markets. Markets bring people to town, benefitting other businesses. They provide opportunities for people to access fresher foods and to develop healthier eating habits. They create transparency in the food system and connections in the community. They bring rural and urban areas together toward shared goals and benefits.

Markets are also the face of farming and local food. They are the place that most people are most likely to meet a farmer, to learn how and where food is grown, to learn about seasonality of production, and to learn about the challenges of farming and bringing food to market. This is extremely important because many of our food related health problems can be traced back to a fundamental disconnect from food.

And they provide the opportunity for children, as well as adults, to engage in a positive way with food. Children, and their parents, can learn about food and come to understand that food comes from farms and farmers and not just in bags or through drive-through windows.

The great opportunity for farmers markets is to build these connections and to become places of transformation for communities as they address the issues of preventable food related diseases and hunger and community disconnect. Many markets are actively engaging with the public by making sure that they have fun learning opportunities for children and adults, that they are accessible to low-income families by accepting SNAP and other supplemental nutrition programs that may be available to them, they’re inviting chefs to do cooking demonstrations, and coming up with new ideas every day.

There is the opportunity for our markets to not only be gathering places for community, to not only be seedbeds for growing businesses, they can also be the centers of community change.

Farmers markets are also where new and young farmers are getting their start in farming. The 2012 Summary Census of Agriculture found that North Carolina continues to lose farms and that the average age of farmers continues to tick up from just over 57 to nearly 59 between 2007 and 2012.  One group of farmers that did see a small increase is farmers between the ages of  25 to 34 did see a slight increase of 2 percent. Farmers markets have the opportunity to attract new people to farming. The total number of farms in the state decreased 5 percent from 2007 to 2012 (from 52,913 to 50,210).

Barriers for NC Farmers Markets

But there are real barriers to starting and running markets.  Most markets in North Carolina are small and have few to no resources. A national survey of farmers market managers found that nearly half of all markets are run by volunteer workers only. I expect that figure is higher in North Carolina.

This is particularly relevant given the new requirement on market managers in the statute, N.C.G.S. 66-255,  passed last year regulating operators of specialty markets, which was written to include farmers markets as specialty markets and farmers market managers, even volunteers, as specialty market operators.

This new regulatory burden will require market managers to maintain a daily registration list of vendors as well as require market managers be responsible for requiring vendors to obtain a certificate of registration from the North Carolina Department of Revenue. Market managers are also required to keep these records for a minimum of two years. If they fail to comply with any of these requirements they can be charged with a misdemeanor.

These new requirements will both deter new markets from opening, particularly in the least-resourced food deserts and low-income communities, as well as discourage the expansion of SNAP (EBT) at markets because of the increased management requirements.

ASAP has heard from farmers and farmers market managers and they said that a major concern is the increasing responsibilities and requirements on market managers.

As one farmer noted, “the new regulations make it almost impossible to get a volunteer market manager. When we started all (market managers) were volunteers or operated with no manager.”

Supplemental Nutrition Programs

Another significant barrier is the management of SNAP programs at markets. According to the USDA Farmers Market Directory (a periodic survey of US farmers markets): 34 North Carolina markets participate in the WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program (15%),  26 markets participate in the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program (11%), and 31 markets take SNAP (13%). these numbers change every year so they may not be exact now but do demonstrate the extent of market participation in supplemental nutrition programs.

SNAP at market is challenging, requiring staff time, licensing, and detailed recordkeeping. For markets already run by volunteers, the time and paperwork commitments can be too much. Few markets have the capacity to manage this program, much less do effective outreach in the community. At present, the redemption of SNAP and other programs is relatively low at markets. And because there is no mechanism for markets to cover the cost of the staffing requirements through the SNAP program, they frequently piggy-back the program on their debit and credit programs or charge the vendors an extra fee. SNAP alone is hard to justify for a market other than as a public benefit, as it brings in too few dollars to make it worthwhile for the market to invest in the staff time required.

We have heard directly from farmers market managers that, and I quote one as an example: “Our market’s biggest barrier currently is in getting the SNAP/EBT program in place. Again, we are stretched to the limit both regarding manpower and funding. If the State would provide funds to markets, allowing them to pay for management costs, more markets could incorporate the program.”

Food Safety/Prepared Foods

NC farmers markets are heavily regulated when it comes to prepared and processed food items.

Depending on what the foods are, packaged foods can be regulated by the NCDA, NCDA Meat and Poultry Inspection branch, Food Safety Inspection Service of the USDA, NCDA’s Food & Drug Protection Division, FDA, and other Federal, state, or local offices. It can be very hard for farmers and vendors to know where to go and who is regulating what and frequently hard to get definitive answers from regulators.

Something as simple as pickles – a very safe high-acid food – requires farmers to spend several days in what is commonly called “pickle school” and spend significant amounts of money to take a training designed for large-scale processing facility managers. As one farmer emailed to me: “Pickle school is required but in several days of training at $500 or so per student they train us how to run a cannery but barely touch on the type of processing that most small processors use.”

Also, in NC the sale of hot, prepared foods requires a Temporary Food Permit. However, farmers’ markets are not eligible for a temporary food establishment permit and therefore cannot sell them. In neighbor states like SC and Virginia, regulations are much less strict and allow for markets to sell items like soup and chili to customers without any apparent detriment to public health.

If market vendors in NC could prepare ready to eat (hot) food/meals at market, it would increase customer traffic and be an attraction point for tourists.

‘Food Deserts’ and the Real Cause of Food Insecurity

I was asked to talk about connecting low-income communities to farmers markets but want to be clear that the issue we are dealing with is not a lack of access but a lack of money to buy food. The number one strategy to increase access to farmers markets is to make sure that more North Carolinians have the opportunity to earn enough to afford to buy food.

“Food desert”  as an analogy, implies the absence of something, in the literal case of a desert it is water – supply water and you no longer have a desert. The food desert analogy implies an absence of food, in this case healthy food. A food desert is not fixed by simply supplying food. A food desert is not just the absence of food but the absence of enough money to spend on food. We fix a food desert by decreasing poverty.

A food desert is also a poor analogy because it implies place, an arbitrary boundary that is defined by the absence of something that can be remedied by technology or infrastructure or simply supplying what is assumed to be missing. The primary problem to be addressed is people’s ability to afford and want to eat healthier foods. Recent studies show that just making food available does not work – there is the concurrent need for education, outreach, community organizing,  and community buy-in.

People in poverty are more likely to lack the resources – be they time or money or education – to access, desire, and consume healthy food. To eliminate or reduce hunger we need to eliminate or reduce poverty. And it should be noted that many people in poverty and participating in assistance programs are working full-time jobs.

For example, NC largest private employer, who also happens to be the largest grocer in the world, is also the largest employer of people who depend on public assistance to put food on their tables. They are also the largest recipient of EBT and WIC dollars.

There is a vicious cycle of our safety net dollars supporting poverty wage jobs – frequently in the name of keeping the price of food affordable. What we need is not cheaper (sometimes called affordable) food, but an increase in peoples ability to afford food.

Connecting Low-income Individuals and Families to Farmers Markets

But there are things that markets can do to make the market more accessible to existing low-income populations. The following is from ASAP’s Sharing the Harvest—A Guide to Bridging the Divide Between Farmers Markets and Low-Income Shoppers.

Markets and communities first  need to understand the barriers to farmers market accessibility so they can act. To do this they need to consider common barriers to all shoppers,

Convenience, for example, is extremely important. Convenient hours, convenient location, and convenient foods themselves that are quick and easy to prepare. Many shoppers have limited experience with or lack the time needed to prepare fresh fruits and vegetables. For low-income shoppers in particular, there may be additional barriers to shopping at a farmers market, including:

  • Many shoppers may rely on public transportation or need to shop within a close proximity to home and other routine errands.
  • a market’s inability to accept SNAP or other federal benefits can be a barrier, and
  • language and cultural differences (such as a lack of cultural-specific foods)

Markets and communities need to Assess Community Need and Market Capacity. While there is no easy fix to overcome the myriad barriers limiting farmers market access, a thoughtful examination of the needs of the local community can reveal opportunities for growing a market to be more accessible to low-income community members. Markets and communities need to plan. Once a market or organizing entity has gained an understanding of the unique characteristics of the local community, they need to look at resources, funding sources, staff capacity, and existing local programs that can be collaborative with market and community efforts.

And markets and communities must take action as well as assess effectiveness. To build a strong and sustainable program, organizers need to pay attention to successes and failures, have patience, listen to feedback, and periodically reassess and make adjustments to your plan. Taking the time to craft a plan to enhance inclusivity, to build a market’s capacity, and to reach out to inform and educate diverse community members about local markets is essential to building a healthier community.

Specific recommendations for markets to create welcoming environments include:

  • Address Language and Cultural Barriers
  • Manage Affordability, for example by inviting large-scale growers.
  • Assess and consider accepting federal nutrition benefits programs and developing incentive programs.
  • Ensure that affordable basic staples are available at the market.
  • Increase Market Usability (post multilingual signs that clearly identify the market manager, where and how to conduct EBT transactions, and any other benefits provided to low-income customers; display information on top seasonal offerings with information on how to use them; encourage vendors to visibly list available products and pricing; use convenience pricing options and/or pre-package produce (e.g. 4 for $1 bundles).
  • Most importantly, enhance community involvement by developing community relationships to enhance a sense of ownership and belonging, and broadly reach out and involve agencies and organizations toward shared goals of increasing access and consumption of local, healthier foods.

Policy Recommendations

  • Exempt farmers market managers from the requirements of NCGS 66-255
  • Examine NC health department regulations on prepared foods at markets and make them more supportive of entrepreneurs producing safe products.
  • Support efforts to provide training and technical assistance to farmers and farmers market managers on how to make markets more welcoming to all customers and how to efficiently and sustainably manage a SNAP at market program. Support NC markets and state organizations efforts to access Farm Bill funds for matching programs.
  • Provide funds for community-based organizations and agencies for training and technical assistance and outreach.

Thank you.

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