Farmers market reaches out to low-income neighbors

Saturday, April 25, 2009 | 5:58 p.m. CDT; updated 10:01 p.m. CDT, Saturday, April 25, 2009

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.

To become eligible for a low-income bus discount

  • 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.”

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Mark Foecking April 26, 2009 | 1:29 a.m.

Fresh food often tastes better, keeps longer, and it is increasingly important to support local farmers rather than ones 2000 miles away. However, the difference in nutritive value for local produce and grocery store produce is minimal. It's far more important to eat fruits and vegetables than to eat particular ones, or ones raised in a particular way (e.g. organic).


(Report Comment)
Eric Reuter April 26, 2009 | 8:24 a.m.

Thank you for this well-presented and balanced article. I particularly appreciated this passage:

"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."

One of the more significant factors in the prices of local foods versus national foods are the significant irrigation subsidies given to growers in CA, AZ, and the like to allow that produce to be grown in what is otherwise near-desert. Local farmers are growing and selling on the open market with no government support, and so we are all finding our own balance between charging a fair price for our businesses and competing with government-subsidized food (both fresh and processed).


I think there are many factors going into nutritional value. While you're certainly right that there's no one divide between local/national/organic, what does matter is the quality of the soil in which the produce was raised. Vegetables are getting their nutrients from the soil, and a healthier soil will produce healthier produce. This is why many people claim that local/organic is healthier, because the industrial methods used by large-scale CA farms tend to sterilize the soil relative to the farming methods of a smaller farm. The point is that "organic" does not magically make produce better, but that the overall farming methods dictated by organic standards are more likely to produce healthy soil which will pass more nutrients on to the produce. The N-K-P fixation of large-scale agriculture does not adequately address the nutrional needs and content of produce, in my opinion.

I know at least one farmer who has had his produce tested in comparison to CA produce, and it came out far higher in nutrient content. He felt it was because of the health of his soil. A generalization and anecdotal, but something to think about nonetheless.

(Report Comment)
Amber Hanneken April 26, 2009 | 10:51 p.m.

I enjoyed this article. I was curious about the Farmer's Market because I do believe it's important to buy local. However, when they were on campus the other day and I saw tiny strawberries for $5 when I can buy huge ones for 99 cents at Wal Mart I just walked on by. As a student, that is just no where near my budget for food.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking April 27, 2009 | 8:43 a.m.


But did you taste the local strawberries? For some produce there might not be a lot of difference, but Shrock's strawberries were really good. They're ripe and fresh, which the ones from Florida or California are not. The warm weather growers need to grow varieties that ship well, where local growers can concentrate on taste. I know what you mean about being on a student budget, but these berries are a real luxury.


I've heard people talk about healthy soil giving healthier produce, and I have a hard time seeing how that would work. First, it would depend on what you call a nutrient. Plant nutrients are very different from what animals need. If the plant has everything it needs to grow well (the N-P-K, appropriate sun, and soil to the plant's liking as far as composition and drainage), then it will yield nutrition (for animals, vitamins, protein, carbohydrates, etc.) primarily according to it's genetics.

Second, it's hard to make a valid comparison between the local and CA produce. The CA grower may have to use a different variety, the local produce is likely fresher, they were grown under different conditions of weather and sun, they may have been harvested at different levels of maturity - there's a lot of variables that aren't being controlled for. I'd think that's a pretty tough experiment to set up.

Commercial farms typically have very high yields, which tells me they are growing healthy plants. Their inputs may not be sustainable, and local produce is certainly more desirable from an embodied energy standpoint, but I would doubt that their produce is a lot different nutritionally than ones grown locally (other than freshenss).


(Report Comment)
James Patchett April 27, 2009 | 12:26 p.m.

Give up Corey.

The Farmers Market is never going to be anything more than it is right now.

I can spot a ploy 100 feet away.

(Report Comment)
Sarah Ratermann April 29, 2009 | 11:31 a.m.

I am a graduate student and can certainly sympathize with anyone on a budget, particularly a student one. However, I'd argue that spending on food depends on your priorities. I make a habit of avoiding eating out (for a number of reasons, though cost effectiveness is most definitely the top of the list), particularly at any sort of fast-food restaurant so that I can spend my small food budget on quality, local produce. I also, however, do not shop at WalMart, try to avoid industrialized food, particularly meat, and try to by organic when I can, so my priorities with regards to food are, as Eric addressed above, in line with a more holistic, global, sustainable focus, and look to long term benefits rather than simply how 99 cent strawberries affect my pocketbook today.

(Report Comment)

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