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Learning and Growing at a Small-Town Farmers’ Market

By Phil Bors on July 13th, 2016

On a sunny spring Saturday in 2015 in Zebulon, NC, its Community Center became the town’s very first open air market connecting local farmers and residents. The Zebulon Farm Fresh Market operates each Saturday thanks to the persistence and collective efforts of town officials, recreation staffers, farmers, and community members. John Rex Endowment provided crucial start-up funding (as part of the Wake County Healthy Community grant program), and local businesses chipped in donations and sponsorships.

Zebulon’s goal is to create an economically viable market that will help local farmers, boost activity in the downtown, and increase food access for Zebulon’s residents, particularly low-income families. Zebulon is Wake County’s smallest town, has the lowest median income, and is one of the most demographically diverse communities in the county. In 2014, Zebulon was also designated as a food desert by the USDA.

Maurine Brown, the market manager (who raises goats with her family), works tirelessly to recruit farmers, get the word out to the community, organize volunteers, and make sure everything runs smoothly on market day. In order to support increasing healthy food access for low-income families, she and the recreation staff worked with the finance department to set up SNAP/EBT card technology and a coupon “match” program, which allows EBT shoppers to double their money for produce. Maurine and other community members also worked with local churches and went door-to-door with fresh produce samples, personally inviting families to visit the markets.

Despite their best efforts, though, the organizers were disappointed by the low turnout of customers using their EBT cards to buy produce, averaging only a few EBT purchases each week. The market was providing greater access to healthy food, but low-income residents were not benefitting from the new opportunity.

Their experience is nothing new. Many farmers’ markets struggle to attract and serve low-income residents. The challenges—and potential solutions—are well documented.

After reflecting back on the inaugural season, town officials and organizers decided to move the market from the Community Center parking lot to Town Hall’s beautiful front lawn in order to increase visits. The new market venue is now more prominent, located at a treasured Zebulon icon, and is easier to access from a major highway. In addition to being on the main access point into the community, Town Hall is also surrounded by moderate- and low-income homes, bringing the market closer to their front doors.

This season, Maurine and her team also figured out another way the market could boost healthy food access: they partnered with the Zebulon United Methodist Church and Farmer Foodshare (a Durham based nonprofit that provides technical support to 25 farmers’ markets in North Carolina) to create a weekly, on-site “Donation Station.” This innovative approach allows market shoppers to donate cash or produce for the church’s food pantry. After collecting the cash, church volunteers purchase produce directly from vendors at the market and distribute it through their established food program. Zebulon, a town of less the 5,000 residents, has been one of the top markets in the state for cash and produce donations. Maurine and church leaders were “ecstatic” and attribute the success of this approach to the generosity of residents.

Also this season, the market is serving as a summer meal site for children. Maurine will be tracking the meals provided by the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina to learn whether a seasonal market is a good location for feeding kids.

ALBD’s Community Action Model suggests that community-change agents learn by routinely assessing the progress of their work and impact within the neighborhoods they serve. Zebulon’s team recognized the need to adjust where and how the market does business. As it evolved, the Zebulon Farm Fresh Market expanded from a consumer food access point—selling healthy produce to market shoppers—to also being a venue for healthy meals and pantry donations, which in turn benefits produce vendors. Kudos to Zebulon’s market organizer, recreation staff, town officials, partner organizations and volunteers for their persistence and for establishing their culture of learning.

You can find out more about a culture of learning by reading Joanne Lee’s most recent blog post.

Phil Bors

Senior Project Director

Community collaborator, enthusiastic brainstormer, and devotee of down time