A really fascinating article that markets should read. Programs like Power of Produce (POP), cooking demos and packaging some smaller amounts may help with this issue.
But the poor parents I followed had little leeway to ignore waste. One mother strove to provide healthy food on a budget. She cooked rice and beans or pasta with bruised vegetables bought at a discount. These meals cost relatively little — if they’re eaten. But when her children rejected them, an affordable dish became a financial burden. Grudgingly, this mother resorted to the frozen burritos and chicken nuggets that her family preferred.
To consume a variety of nutritious foods, children need to acquire new tastes. This is an opportunity that many families cannot provide. Schools can familiarize children with nourishing foods through gardening, experience-based nutrition education and healthy school meals. Because many schools lack the funding to expose children to varied, wholesome foods, it is essential to expand the promising programs that have begun to address this problem.
Pediatricians and nutrition educators can also suggest how to reduce waste. Recommendations could include offering foods that are shelf-stable and easily divisible, like frozen fruits and vegetables, so parents can offer small amounts repeatedly without generating excessive waste.
This is (basically) the same system that Crescent City Farmers Market (CCFM) in New Orleans has used to gather data from incentive users (incentiv-ers?) since they began doing them some years back. They call their incentive Market Match.
As one of the staff who was responsible for doing it when it began and was part of the discussion about it, I really liked it. It is on a pad that is pulled off to have the person fill out and then each slip is added to the clipboard (or put in a container) to be entered into spreadsheets at a later time. The darker grey is filled out by the market staff person after the other part is completed by the shopper. What I know is that the system was designed with both the shopper and the market staff needs in minds, which as we all know is important and yet not always done. I’d like them to be numbered chronologically so as to know that none were lost. Maybe they are numbered, I’ll check to see.
Sorry for the wrinkles- it ended up in my market bag under the citrus. I’ll get some more pics of their system-including a better version of this and maybe the other collection forms if they will allow me to continue to peek over their shoulder.
I used these examples in Part 2 of this series, but wanted to use them again for this post. To review:
Market A (which runs on Saturday morning downtown) is asked by its city to participate in a traffic planning project that will offer recommendations for car-free weekend days in the city center. The city will also review the requirement for parking lots in every new downtown development and possibly recalibrate where parking meters are located. To do this, the city will add driving strips to the areas around the market to count the cars and will monitor the meters and parking lot uses over the weekend. The market is being asked for its farmers to track their driving for all trips to the city and ask shoppers to do Dot Surveys on their driving experiences to the market on the weekend. Public transportation use will be gathered by university students.
Market B is partnering with an agricultural organization and other environmental organizations to measure the level of knowledge and awareness about farming in the greater metropolitan area. For one summer month, the market and other organizations will ask their supporters and farmers to use the hashtag #Junefarminfo on social media to share any news about markets, farm visits, gardening data or any other seasonal agricultural news.
Market C is working with its Main Street stores to understand shopping patterns by gathering data on average sales for credit and debit users. The Chamber of Commerce will also set up observation stations at key intersections to monitor Main Street shopper behavior such as where they congregate.
Market D has a grant with a health care corporation to offer incentives and will ask those voucher users to track their personal health care stats and their purchase and consumption of fresh foods. The users will get digital tools such as cameras to record their meals, voice recorders to record their children’s opinions about the menus (to upload on an online log) with their health stats such as BP, exercise regimen. That data will be compared to the larger Census population.
So all those ideas show how markets and their partners might be able to begin to use the world of Big Data. In those examples, one can see how the market benefits from having data that is (mostly) collected without a lot of work on the market’s part and yet is useful for them and for the larger community that the market also serves.
However, one of the best ways that markets can benefit from Big Data is slightly closer to home and even more useful to the stability and growth of the market itself. That is: to analyze and map the networks that markets foster and maintain, which is also known as network theory.
Network theory is a relatively new science that rose to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s and is about exploring and defining the relationships that a person or a community has and how, through their influence, their behavior is altered. What’s especially exciting about this work is that it combines many disciplines from mathematics to economics to social sciences.
A social network perspective can mean that data about relationships between the individuals can be as useful as the data about individuals themselves. Some people talk about this work in terms of strong ties and weak ties. Strong ties are the close relationships that we use with greater frequency and offer support and weak ties are those acquaintances who offer new information and connect us to other networks. The key is that in order to really understand a network, it is important to analyze the behavior of any member of the network in relation to other members action. This has a lot to do with incentives, which is obviously something markets have a lot of interest in.
I could go on and on about different theories and updates and critiques on these ideas, but the point to make here is this is science that is so very useful to the type of networks that food systems are propagating. Almost all of the work that farmers markets do rely on network theory without directly ascribing to it.
Think about a typical market day: a market could map each vendors booth to understand what people come to each table, using Dot Surveys or intercept surveys. That data could assist the vendor and the market. The market will benefit in knowing which are the anchor vendors of the market, which vendors constantly attract new shoppers, which vendors share shoppers etc. The market could also find out who among their shoppers bring information and ideas into the market and who carrries them out to the larger world from the market. All of this data would be mapped visually and would allow the market to be strategic with its efforts, connecting the appropriate type of shoppers to the vendors, expanding the product list for the shoppers likely to purchase new goods and so on.
Network theory would be quite beneficial to markets in their work to expand the reach to benefit program users and in the use of incentives. Since these market pilots began around 2005/2006, it has been a struggle to understand how to create a regular, return user of markets among those who have many barriers to adding this style of health and civic engagement. Those early markets created campaigns designed to offer the multiple and unique benefits of markets as a reason for benefit program shoppers to spend their few dollars there. Those markets also worked to reduce the barriers whenever possible by working with agencies on providing shuttles, offering activities for children while shopping, and adding non-traditional hours and locations for markets. Those efforts in New York, Arizona, California, Maryland, Massachusetts and Louisiana (among others) were positive but the early results were very small, attracting only a few of the shoppers desired. When the outcomes were analyzed by those organizations, it seemed that a few issues were cropping up again and again:
1. The agency that distributed the news of these market programs didn’t understand markets or did not have a relationship of trust with their clients that encouraged introduction of new ideas or acceptance of advice in changing their habits.
2. The market itself was not ready to welcome new benefit program shoppers- too few items were available or the market was not always welcoming to new shoppers who required extra steps and new payment systems.
3. Targeting the right group of “early adopters” among the large benefit program shopping base was impossible to decipher.
4. Some barriers remained and were too large for markets alone to address (lack of transportation or distance for example).
4. Finding the time for staff to do all of that work.
Over time, markets did their best to address these concerns, which has led to the expansion of these systems into every state and a combined impact in the millions for SNAP purchases at markets alone. The cash incentives assisted a great deal, especially with #2 and #4. However, this work would be made so much easier and the impact so much larger if network theory was applied.
Market A is going to add a centralized card processing system and has funds to offer a cash incentive. But how to spend it? And how to prepare the market for the program?
If the market joined forces with a public health agency and a social science research team from a nearby university, it might begin by mapping the networks in that market to understand the strong and weak ties it contains as well as the structural holes in its network. It might find out that its vendors attract few new shoppers regularly or that the market’s staff is not connected to many outside actors in the larger network, thereby reducing the chance for information to flow.
It might also see that younger shoppers are not coming to the market and therefore conclude that focusing its efforts on attracting older benefit program shoppers (especially at first) might be a strategic move. If the market has a great many low-income shoppers using FMNP coupons already, the mapping of those shoppers may offer much data about how the market supports benefit program shoppers already and how it might expand with an audience already at market
The public health agency might do the same mapping for the agencies that are meant to offer the news of the market’s program. That mapping might find certain agencies or centers are better at introducing new ideas or have a population that is aligned already with the market’s demographic and therefore likely to feel welcomed.
As for incentives, what markets and their partners routinely tell me is more money is not always the answer. Not knowing what is expected from the use of the incentives or how to reach the best audience for that incentive is exhausting them or at least, puzzling them.
If markets knew their networks and knew where the holes were, they could use their incentive dollars much more efficiently and run their markets without burning out their staff or partners.
They might offer different incentives for their different locations, based on the barriers or offerings for each location. (They may also offer incentives to their vendors to test out new crops.)
If connectors are seen in large numbers in a market, then a “bring a friend” incentive might be offered, or if the mapping shows a large number of families entering the system in that area, then an incentive for a family level shopping experience may be useful.
One of the most important hypotheses that markets should use in their incentive strategy is how can they create a regular shopper through the use of the incentive. Of course, it is not the only hypothesis for a market; a large flagship market might identify their role as introducing new shoppers to their markets every month and use their funds to do just that. But for many markets with limited staff and small populations in and around the market, a never-ending cycle of new shoppers coming in for a few months and then not returning may not be the most efficient way to spend those dollars or their time. So this is also where network theory could be helpful.
By asking those using their EBT card to tell in detail where and how they heard about the program and by also tracking the number of visits they have after their introduction, we could begin to see which introductions work the best. Or by asking a small group of new EBT shoppers to be members of a long-term shopping focus group to track what happens during their visit (how many vendors they purchase from and how long they stay) and after (see Market D example at the top), we could learn about what EBT shoppers in that area value in their market experience. We may also find out that the market has few long-term return shoppers from the EBT population or we may find out that connectors become easy to spot and therefore they can be rewarded when sharing information on the market’s behalf.
In all of these cases, it will be easier for the staff to know what to do and when to do it if they understand their networks both in and around the market.
And of course, mapping the larger food systems around the markets’ systems would be exciting and could move policy issues to action sooner and allow funding to be increased for initiatives to fill the holes found.
However markets do it, what seems necessary is to know specifically who is using markets and how and why they decided to begin to use them and to whom those folks are connected. Network theory can be the best and widest use of the world of Big Data, especially to accomplish what Farmers Market Coalition has set as their call to action: that markets are for everyone.
The thing about being a market consultant is it has a very specific schedule each year: the spring is packed with calls and invitations to conferences and workshops. Lots of discussion about grant opportunities and best practices.
The summer is spent at at the desk, writing or researching on behalf of those who hire us.
The fall starts to bring more travel, usually more for large-scale (non-market) conferences as well as a scramble for assistance on projects that got sidelined or tangled over the summer.
The winter is when the big ideas are usually discussed, with colleagues asking for an ear or agreeing to read something. Some of those big ideas roll right into spring grant-writing season and the year begins again.
This year my spring travel started in Alabama, then to Oregon and Washington, March in Vermont, two spots in Illinois and this last spring trip was in the Magnolia State, right in my own backyard.
I live part of the time about 40 or so miles from the Mississippi line and of course, as a past manager of a set of markets in the biggest city in the region, I had farmers from Mississippi and from Alabama that came to vend, so I am quite familiar with what is happening there and have some ideas as to what could happen there.
When I was asked to speak again this year by MS Department of Agriculture and Commerce (MDAC), I said yes immediately. Partly because I like the folks at MDAC and partly because in order to have a real food system in my place, it must be regionally organized (which means MS too of course) and we are far from that reality. And of course, because as a national market advocate, I need to see and talk to as many markets as I can. Let me say that MDAC does an amazing job supporting every actor in the food system and any criticism I give about the lack of support should not be construed as being directed at MDAC. They do more with less than most other states I know. And that MDAC is a state agency devoted to the many, not the few; market organizers and community food system initiative leaders need their own champions too.
MDAC asked me to talk about EBT outreach and about measuring markets for whatever number of the 70 or so markets listed in the state showed up. I agreed, even though I knew that the EBT outreach was probably a little too forward of what the group needed, based on the answers to the survey we sent out.
The MS markets are a strange and wonderful hybrid-they have no independent state association of markets, which is typical of most the other Southern states.
The state does have an emerging sustainable ag network, thanks to some local people (Daniel Doyle for one) and the Wallace Center which offered early funding to create the entity.
The state has offered both farmers and markets free SNAP-only machines for the last few years, predating the new FNS marketlink.org farmer terminal system. Many of you know that I am not a fan of these systems being handed off to farmers quite yet, so I do view these hybrid systems with a jaundiced eye.
Some of their markets have a closer relationship to Main Street initiatives than many other states’s markets which means that they are included in larger municipal ideas of revitalization, which can be good and bad for a market. The Main Street movement is more viable in rural communities, using its energy on facade or street improvements and some event planning. So what I find among MS managers are great event planners and city/civic leaders, with a genuine interest in assisting their vendors, but with few ideas how to do just that. The newest trend there is for public health partnerships (of course) with funding increasing there tremendously since MS is usually at the lowest rung of most health stats, with Louisiana constantly battling it for last place. Even so, since many of the markets are quite entrepreneurial and “downtown-focused,” these public health partnerships have not yet found their sweet spot.
And since most of these markets are operating with such low capacity, and no one is advocating for them full-time, they have very little data on what they do well and little experience in analyzing how they did something well. EBT and FMNP for instance-what do they want from these programs? How do markets of 5 to 20 vendors build in capacity to offer a robust benefit program system without any resources or support? Interestingly, a workshop with information about market link and on becoming a SNAP retailer was held in a room at the other end of the center for MS farmers at the exact same time as the managers were in this room. I wish this had not been the case for many reasons, but most of all I have not found that creating silos of information within a system very useful.
As we were in the room, we heard about the successful FINI proposals, one of which is substantial and will involve MS markets. There was excitement, but there was also trepidation among the market organizers. Most of them do not run central EBT systems and so have very little contact with their benefit program shoppers and almost no idea where to find these folks or how to get them to come to their markets. Adding cash incentives is great, but there has to also be money to build the systems at market and state level to change perceptions of local food and to lift the existing barriers or that money will just act as it was pushed through a sieve.
As I stood inside and outside after my talks, I was peppered with questions, most of which showed the lack of support these markets have:
Where do I find these USDA grants?
How do I get FMNP coupons at my market?
What amount should I raise for an incentive and how should I use it?
Who offers funds for staffing a market?
What is market link?
How do I get funds to advertise?
How do I get more local goods to more people as an organizer?
The agency directors (that serve benefit program shoppers) won’t even talk to me about my market- what should I do?
How can I measure my economic impact?
and this round of questions didn’t even bring up the whole set of issues present everywhere- how do get enough farmers and producers doing well enough to keep this system moving forward? How do we do this with other initiatives breathing down our neck, competing for funding and attention?
The number of new faces at this meeting is similar to many of the other states that I visit regularly and is an indication that we have yet to find a way to offer professional jobs as market managers, instead using the typical revolving door of entry-level work that exhausts producers and means that initiatives never fully engage or sustain; markets are full of pilots but few have moved those pilots to replicable programs with funding streams, experienced staff and policy changes arising from those lessons.
The beautiful thing is that the willingness and enthusiasm among these organizers is always high, even with the many closed doors and the lack of support available to them.
So, I finish my spring conference travel right where I started it: with markets feeling the pressures from partners to offer new programs, with internal communities asking for sustainable growth, with organizers managing this work while they are paid not at all or paid a pittance or doing the equivalent of 2-3 peoples workload. But I also finish it having heard loads of great ideas from organizers and with stories of successful pilots from the last few years that will be expanded or tested again.
So let’s hope that this year that we can move the dial a little bit over the summer and fall with a successful market season and then together can start to build the system we need come winter and spring.
Porch at the auditorium for the mkt meeting at the MS Ag and Forestry Museum
View of MS Sustainable Ag Network’s Victory Garden demonstration at the MS Ag Museum
Love the article linked below; it’s an overview of incentives given to business to encourage healthy behaviors. For those of you that have heard my spiel on how the 1970s emergence of the farmers markets movement has focused on incentivizing behavior changes of all kinds with buying rewards (frequent shopper cards, raffles/giveaways), added social interaction (music or entertainment), knowledge increase (cooking demos) and so on you might see how the most recent addition of cash incentives for low-income citizens to find their way to us is simply another example of that strategy.
This article shows that many businesses are using the same strategy when adding benefits to their community and therefore, markets should see that they stand proudly as innovative leaders in incentivizing good health and wealth. AND markets should use this strategy in as many ways as they can to continue to increase everyone’s changes, including vendors, neighbors, and shoppers in every socioeconomic strata.