An Open Letter to the Food Policy Council

Dear colleagues,

I appreciated the time and courtesy you showed me today in the middle of your packed agenda. I am even more hopeful about the future of a healthy food system after listening in on your hard work. I thank you for all that you have done and promise to do.
As I traveled back home this afternoon, I decided to write out a few major points of what I attempted to get across today, in case some of it was missed by me or simply not clear in our short time together.
My work will continue to be focused on how to build public markets into a movement and their role in the larger food system. I hope my work will benefit you as I gather and analyze data to understand the typology of markets through their characteristics so that we can all better understand how to sustain them and build healthy systems through them.

In the meantime, I want to share what I know about farmers market activists; such as that the reasons for starting or managing a market are wide ranging. It could be economic need in that community or a desire to reconnect citizens or it might be to build an entire food system. In all cases, what each farmers market learns sooner or later is that balance is the key to success. Balancing producers, shoppers and community members’ needs and changing campaigns to meet those needs is the only way to lift barriers and keep people coming back to the same place to continue to have an evolving conversation. As I said today, all great markets have one thing in common: their ability to create and maintain extensive partnerships. The more partnerships (at the appropriate time!) the better.

In the serious work you have before you, you may ask how do farmers markets fit into this health and social equity paradigm you are creating. Here is what I would like you to remember:

•In every conversation we have about food systems, there is one constant. The profound need for successful producers able to work within the human scale of our emerging system. For that need, farmers markets are the best point of entry yet found for encouraging the farmer. A market can work for one, two, or more years with a farmer, patiently letting them find their level of comfort and their own skill set.
•The incredible set of skills within a market (in the farmers, managers, shoppers and partners) can ensure that innovative and (sometimes risky) food system ideas make it past pilot stage. In other words, we experiment well and as we learn to measure those experiments, sensible policy ideas appear.
•The open, democratic, nature of markets mean that true bridging and bonding happen when they are managed well. Can you think of another place the bank president and the bus driver are on the same footing and see each other as often?
•Entry-level positions are necessary for the food system to grow. As we continue to professionalize farmers market management, we will begin to see generations of food system activists in every region with real experience and know-how.

I hope we can all agree on those. The reason I bring them up is to encourage your food leaders to make those things happen. Here’s how:

•Support farmers markets ability to work over many seasons with their producers. Understand that a market farmer is often just beginning the thinking that will often take him or her to complete immersion into larger food system sales. But also grow sisters to your farmers market points of entry by encouraging other types of farmers that might be interested in wholesale or quasi wholesale. Promote CSAs, CSFs, investor circles like Slow Money, marketing cooperatives and other ideas. Realize that markets are encouraging retail farming for one set of farmers, which leaves a piece of the farming pie still covered. Who is encouraging direct marketing of wholesale farm goods at a respectable income level with the same set of criteria that farmers markets demand? (By the way, it might end up being farmers markets again- wholesale markets are cropping up in every region run by the very same organizations that manage the farmers markets.)
•Support action organizations like the Farmers Market Coalition, which is working to build and support comprehensive training for market managers and state associations. Advocate for markets to become members and avail themselves of the webinars, the Resource Library and its advocacy work. And, of course, support practioner/ research organizations like marketumbrella.org.
•Encourage the markets to get to their most useful form. Expect your markets to have proper governance, rules and regulations BUT make sure that all of it fits in with the characteristics of your state’s farmers markets. Each region comes at this slightly differently and policy should reflect that reality. And give it time to get there.
•Professionalize market management by advocating for it. All of the lofty ideas I put forth here are based on someone or a group of someones staying in one place and building it. Let me be clear- yes paid positions must be a priority, but board training and market project planning are just as important, as are sustainable income streams.
•Use the market to address the barriers that the industrial food system and surrounding systems have put in place. Issues like racial equity and the rural-urban divide can be addressed by connecting through food sovereignty. Where better to lead the nation on these issues but here? Look at http://www.foodsecurity.org and http://www.growingfoodandjustice.org to see how to address those issues.

Lastly, policy that will last will come from those markets and roadside stands and school gardens, especially if the measurement is built properly. In that vein, I am attaching the draft of the Indicator matrix that I am working on with the Farmers Market Coalition. It comes from markets and farmers, public health activists and planners. I’d love to hear your feedback and look for ways that you can pilot pieces of it.

In closing, I heartily recommend that you think about success first in terms of your front line – your farmers and market managers. I promise you – they will help you get to the finish line.

Sincerely,

Darlene Wolnik

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