Many market people have heard my elevator pitch about the eras of farmers markets, circa 1970-2010. This timeline was derived from founders recounting their experiences, and my realization that each era had a specific set of leaders and a guiding organizing principle. Here is a quick version:
(1970-85) Back-to-land farmers. Organizing Principle: Gotta grow it to sell it; direct sales lead to real, transformative relationships between producers and eaters
(1990-2000) Neighborhood organizers. Organizing Principle: Educational events deepen and lengthen the interaction; the “new” town square is here.
(1995-2005) Main Street leaders. Organizing Principle: Small businesses incubation; regional impact is a necessity.
(2005-) Public health collaboratives. Organizing Principle: Good food for all, attention to the social determinants of health, incentivizing participation.
One of the questions that I end this with is what’s next? Who do we think will be the next set of leaders to add a new round of markets, and what issue will be foremost for them? One of my own guesses for the next era of leadership has been the planning community. For a long time, they mostly eschewed the informal and often temporary spaces that our markets occupy. That began to change over the last few years with more cities and regions “focusing on the spaces between the buildings” as writer Rebecca Solnit suggested to planners at a conference in and about New Orleans after the 2005 levee breaks.
So you could be sure I was pleased to see this thoughtful and detailed post from the Congress for a New Urbanism (CNU), which indicates that the work we do aligns with their evolving efforts. Even more important is that the post focuses on the application of planning on the effects of loneliness.
Here is the key excerpt that spells out the health issue:
Aside from the question of whether having confidants or not affects happiness, living alone affects physical health. According to recently published research at Brigham Young University (2015), living alone increases mortality by 32 percent even for those who self-report that they are not lonely. This is on par with being obese.
The suggestion in the post is that the response requires both structured and informal design solutions, which sounds to me like the market field’s sweet spot. Of course, even before reports like these were out, markets were working with at least one group likely to suffer from this – senior citizens. That strategy was based on the obvious isolation that the modern world forced upon them, which one could easily see led to rapid physical decline. And for low-capacity market leaders, encouraging shoppers who already had a deep knowledge base for the traditional foods our markets do so well made them an ideal demographic as “early adopters.” However, even though it was an obvious choice it wasn’t always easy to keep them coming: open-air market weather issues, physical accessibility, frustration with market’s insistence of seasonality (any market out there NOT have a senior ever ask why they don’t carry bananas?) lack of transportation and more made the work to keep seniors coming challenging but ultimately rewarding. This early work with seniors gave markets a lot of experience with working with at-risk populations, especially when leveraging available benefit programs like FMNP. In many cases, those FMNP programs led to successful SNAP strategies, as well as the Veggie Rx programs that are offering more ways for markets to add new shoppers, especially for F&V farmers.
So who’s next?
Well, as this post and the linked reports make clear, the effect of isolation are only growing more alarming and shared by rural and urban people across a widening age group. More of us work from home or conversely, spend a great deal of time alone in a car than previous generations. Even with my own happy job that I do sitting at my little desk, I have to guard against its effects. The FMC team actually “meets” each week using Google Hangout to have us chat and update via live video and our Executive Director does her best to get as many staff to the outreach we do as often as possible but still, I am grateful for the four or five markets per week in my town that get me among others regularly.
From the CNU post:
Humans don’t generally congregate in the middle of empty fields. We are drawn to social spaces defined by walls, trees, or facades of buildings—spaces limited in size. We like those places because—whether we choose to or not—getting to know people there looks doable. Neighborhood main streets are usually just one to three blocks long. Historically, these social centers usually constituted 5 to 10 percent of the area of a neighborhood. For as long as humans have settled, the marketplace was where social life was most robust. Commerce is more than just the exchange of goods and services for money—commercial centers can also be places of cultural, social, intellectual, and emotional exchange. For communities with strong physical identities, the commercial streets are still the beloved public face. With the automation, digitization, and auto-orientation of commerce in recent decades, much of the social content of our commercial centers has been stripped out. People may be attracted to convenience and inexpensive goods, but the social satisfactions are weak. Nevertheless, creative urban design can revive a forgotten main street, or convert a dead shopping center into a walkable town center. Every community, whether new or historic, needs to proactively take charge of its own social destiny by developing plans for new walkable social spaces and safeguarding its historic centers.
So, I hope this post does a few things: First, that my simple history of what our founders put in place for us is helpful to you. Second, you gain some practical ideas and language for engaging in design opportunities with City Hall or regional planners, using your experience in working with isolated shoppers (and vendors!) and creating social spaces for everyone.
Lastly, that you and your market community feel a sense of camaraderie with the activity around health and happiness bubbling up around the world.
Now go see some people.
The full post from Steve Price