Recently, I had the opportunity to talk at length with a few market network leaders who are thinking deeply about potential issues for markets they expect over the next few years. It is important to note that all are doing excellent work either overseeing multiple markets or managing partnerships on behalf of markets, and that they remain hopeful about the great possibilities of the work they do. And they know everyone is doing their best to create the right programs, based on what they know about market culture.
And yet, they are thinking about difficult decisions.
What made these market leaders feel this way?
They are all receiving a great deal of support to grow one part of the customer base-namely, attracting benefit program users either by adding technology or incentives to existing markets or through adding more points of sale/outlets in underserved areas. There is no doubt that those markets and networks are grateful for that support, believe in the need to do it and are pleased that markets are seen once again as for all people (as they were before 1995), but that they also see the beginning of a few lopsided effects and unintended consequences to these efforts. Here are some:
That added support is not based on any regularly used capacity benchmarks (i.e. markets with the financial or management systems able to manage back office systems or those with significant data collection capabilities), nor on any uniform measure designed in partnership with the markets (i.e. # of vendors enrolled in FMNP or availability of SNAP-eligible goods versus sales) but primarily on geography and the willingness to participate.
- In many cases, new markets or struggling markets are the first to raise their hand to add these programs, and yet these leaders know that accurate timing in a market’s growth cycle is essential to a successful rollout. Unfortunately, they know this through personal experience and anecdotal evidence of past failures and standout successes, and not from any comprehensive analysis of these systems. And since the level of participation in these programs must remain at a certain level, they cannot turn away those who they suspect are not ready for the added programming.
- Since the key success indicators are often preordained and limited to increases in sales, most markets do not measure that which is more useful for their community goals, such as is developing a new trusting relationship with a community support agency, reaching the level where a significant number of the products necessary to offer a healthy family meal are regularly available or students learning about regional food production firsthand.
- The systems are usually designed to expand into a very specific type of market; typically, one with a dozen or more producers participating, with significant F&V items available and paid staff with skills for implementing these projects. Yet, even among those that share those characteristics, other factors may be present to severely reduce the ability to successfully open or implement more than a season of this type of programming.
Secondly, assistance for incentivizing “middle-class” shopper participation and farmer participation is not available.
- As had been said many times by smarter people than me, successful markets rely on multiple cycles of participation that best represent the community’s evolving demographics. In many cases, markets are using either a deep but limited or a wide, shallow approach to community engagement which may not create MORE shoppers or farmers, but just replace the existing with others or adds new ones at the wrong time, or asks existing farmers to anchor a number of outlets far beyond their comfort level.
Thirdly, the data that markets are gathering on those programs is not always contextualized to their system, is not shared back with analysis useful for their continued participation in these programs and in many cases, the actual data collection and entry is overwhelming those markets.
- I’ll take this a step further; in almost no system that I have spent time listening to or working with, have I found robust data that the grassroots leaders developed themselves and then shared with their partners, or many that were able to participate deeply in the analysis. Therefore, the strategy for creating any new program is haphazard and built from the outside in rather than the way we all want it to be designed.
I’ll keep it to those points for now: So in a nutshell, they see that many of the interventions markets and their partners make – and the policies and systems built from those interventions – are often out of scale and lack credible data. And that they believe this is the market field’s responsibility to fix.
What those leaders seem to be sensing is there is enough now enough activity and history in the farmers market field to make possible and necessary finding the appropriate tools for our work. And that using any other sector’s system of interventions without closely adapting them to our scale is no longer appropriate. That we are big enough and yet small enough to be able to decide what we need and to do so with deep deference to the resources that we are honor bound to steward and the people that we rely on for that system, the producers.
As any student of food or civic systems knows, people like Jane Jacobs, E.F. Schumacher and Wendell Berry have brilliantly offered these ideas in terms of the systems that each participated in and wrote about, such as political engagement, economic activity and resource husbandry. All three wrote about being smart about scale and about honoring local decision-making constantly and warned us of the outcomes if those things were not taken into account when working, advocating or protesting.
The ancient Greeks had a term to describe a mode of communication that truly reflects the present conditions: kairos.. Kairos can also describe a decisive moment and the right intervention for it.
Seems like we are there now, in the moment were we need to not only continue the necessary work to expand our programs to more community members, but to also simultaneously build and share the appropriate tools and interventions at the most opportune times.
Along those lines, it is time to be careful of just using “more” as a success measure or in only thinking of our community in terms of those who shop. And to expect that every market should share their particular context when designing any future interventions. And that any tool or intervention that is used has transparency with data to be shared, including any unintended consequences.
As you can imagine, this subject is just beginning, and I look forward to more conversations through email and chatting in person as I travel to winter/spring conferences.