COLUMBIA — The farmers market is two blocks from her house, but Susy Gutierrez has never stopped by. Not even once. She's one of the "elusive" ones.
Saturday morning, the mother of two from Columbia's First Ward finally walked that short distance and discovered fresh food is not all that inaccessible or unaffordable.
- Go to Wabash Bus Station at 126 N. Tenth St.
- Fill out a reduced card fare application.
- You'll be issued an ID card that you can take on the bus with you to get the half-price fare. Each person in the family who wants a lower fare must have a card, but children ride for half price anyway.
“It’s a small step, the first one really, to connect with our neighbors who do not shop here,” Casey Corbin, executive director of the nonprofit group Sustainable Farms & Communities, said as his organization hosted the first annual Neighbor Appreciation Day, designed to attract the bustling market's low-income neighbors.
It was in honor of their “elusive neighbors” that the Columbia Farmers' Market hosted the event, but even market regulars made the most of it.
Corbin is leading the efforts to connect with residents from the First and Second Wards who don’t shop at the farmers market. Corbin said the market is steadily growing in its size and customer base, with an attendance of about 4,000 every Saturday.
At a time when growing numbers of Americans are waking up to the importance of fresh food, many low-income, under-served individuals have stayed away from the market.
“They are our neighbors, the market sits right in the middle of two areas and we want to know and address their barriers in accessing fresh food,” Corbin said.
The objective, he said, is to make this community market more diverse, accessible and affordable. “It’s not a market only for a kind of people with a kind of attitude,” he said.
On election day in November 2008, Corbin’s organization, which works closely with farmers markets, conducted an exit-poll-like survey in the First Ward to understand why residents do or don’t shop there.
The survey results were not entirely unexpected, but would serve as a guideline to address the barriers people face in accessing fresh food, he said.
The survey, involving two- to three-minute interviews of more than 450 respondents showed that low-income individuals were “less likely to go to farmers markets due to high costs, lack of access to transportation and a lower awareness about the market.”
Almost all respondents, however, appreciated local food because it is “healthy, fresh and organic.”
The average age of respondents was 37 years, and more than 50 percent of them earned less than $30,000 annually.
Ninety-five percent of the respondents, cutting across income groups, ethnicity and education level, indicated a healthy diet as “very important” or “important.”
“Nutrition is one of the central issues in promoting wellness in America,” said Laura Schopp, director of T.E. Atkins University of Missouri Wellness Program.
Consumption of freshly grown food is critical for healthy living, Schopp said. Highly processed food with empty calories is one of the largest health challenges Americans face today, she said.
“We have to relearn some of the things that our mothers and grandmothers did in their times,” she said with a chuckle.
But Schopp said local residents are fortunate that farmers here grow a wide variety of vegetables and fruits and make them available in our neighborhood markets.
The issue, Corbin said, is how to make it more accessible and affordable for everybody, while keeping it financially viable for farmer-vendors, most of whom do not enjoy extravagant incomes themselves.
More than 90 percent bought their food from grocery stores, as opposed to convenience stores, restaurants or farmers markets, according to data collected by volunteers from the MU Peace Corps Fellows program. The survey results will be uploaded on the group's Web site.
“It’s so much easier for me to buy food from the grocery store,” Gutierrez said. On the weekends she’s mostly busy cooking food and tidying the house, which is why she finds no time to go to the market.
Almost 60 percent of the families in the First Ward are headed by single women, said Samuel Robinson, a minister with Urban Empowerment Ministries Church, a group that works with low-income blacks.
Most of these women work hard and are under stress, and that’s a key issue the market needs to take note of, he said.
Robinson said if you don’t involve stakeholders from the planning stage, they would resist the effort. “The ideas are workable but it is important they (the farmers market) work hand-in-hand with the residents,” he said.
He said they would need to educate people about the importance of eating fresh food.
“We will work with community leaders and stakeholders to address identified barriers. We are only in the first week of our efforts,” Corbin said.
The group is applying for several grants with which it could double the value of food stamps and Electronic Benefits Transfer cards at the market. “Let’s say you come to the market with $20 worth of food stamps," Corbin said. "We’ll double its value to $40 with the help of those grants to address cost issue.”
Corbin said the group is also exploring other options, such as fundraising.
Many people live on transfer cards or food stamps in the two wards, but the survey showed 77 percent of respondents were unaware that farmers markets accepted such payment.
Corbin said the efforts to educate people about this aspect are under way.
The market gives such customers token wooden dollars to shop with so that there’s no stigma attached. Some farmers also offer various on-the-spot discounts.
His organization's next step will be writing to churches to try to develop neighborhood shuttles to and from the market to address the transportation barrier.
Robinson said disparities in the existing policies need to be addressed to make Columbia mass transit more accessible, frequent, cost-effective and inclusive. The system, he said, is inaccessible for the residents of two wards on the city's outskirts.
Black residents sometimes walk at least four miles to get a bus, Robinson said. “If you are spending $40 on a cab, how can you buy fresh food?” he said.
Columbia Public Works spokeswoman Jill Stedem said bus routes run to both farmers market locations.
“There's a bus stop on Worley near the health department building as well as a bus stop at the ARC location. Columbia transit offers a discounted rate for people that have low-income eligibility so they can ride for the half-price 50-cent fare,” Stedem said.
Buses run approximately every hour on Saturday and every 40 minutes on Wednesday.
“It's very convenient for drop-off and pickup,” Stedem said.
“It’s a good beginning to opening up the resources to people who don’t even know about the market,” Jesca Byndom, singer and radio artist, said of the Neighbor Appreciation Day event. She said farmers markets are “a solution to economic issues of our times” — they encourage local food and benefit the local economy.
Jesca and her husband, Tyree Byndom of the Katalyzt’s Hip Hop Hospel Group, performed live at the farmers market, even as the shoppers bought their stuff.
“We get freshly picked food at a reasonable price,” Mike Grellner, a realtor and neighborhood resident who came to the market with his family, said. “It’s refreshing.”
Farmers said Saturday’s turnout to their market was about as they'd expected, but the residents who were eagerly awaited did not turn up in big numbers.
“I have heard of the market, but I’ve never been there. Maybe I will next time,” said First Ward resident Barbara Hellyer.
“I’m not aware of this event,” Hellyer said, though the Sustainable Farms & Communities had advertised the event in the neighborhood, along Providence Road.
Susy Gutierrez, however, was pleased she attended the event. She came with her two boys, Paul and Keshawn, who had fun at the market activities.
“They woke me up early to come here,” Gutierrez said. The kids had learned of the event in the neighborhood, she said.
“I’ll recommend shopping here to my neighbors now,” she said, as she browsed the pavillions. “Fresh food is healthy.”