Thursday, April 29, 2010

Defining the Montavilla Farmers Market & its role in the Multnomah Food Initiaitve

What is a farmers market?

This question was asked at this past year's OFMA Conference (that's Oregon Farmers Markets Association, btw) in Corvallis. The answer seems obvious: its a place where farmers have an opportunity to sell their goods to the public. But, under discussion, it became apparent that this description needed clarity. Does a market with only one farmer constitute a farmers market, or simply a farm stand? How many farmers would be needed to vend before it becomes a market? What if a number of farms contributed goods into a shared truck, which was driven to the market- is that acceptable? Or does a farmer need to be the vendor as well? What about the goods sold? Any expected quality of the product or of the process in creating them?

With all these various questions discussed, it should be of little surprise that the conversation of providing an OFMA-approved definition of farmers market was tabled. In fact, of all the states, only California has a legally defined definition of what a "certified" farmers market is.

Despite all of these varying aspects of what defines a farmers market, I felt that one aspect was not included in the discussion: the people who shop at the market. Because, simply, if you don't have people shopping, there will simply be no market. A market with low attendance isn't worth the vendors' time, and they will pursue opportunities at other markets with higher attendance figures. So, any discussion of what comprises a farmers markets needs to include the market's shoppers. These shoppers are just as important for a farmers market's success as the farmers who provide fresh and healthy goods on a weekly basis.

The market's customer base is, obviously, going to be shaped by the community that the market serves. The Montavilla Farmers Market is conscious of the role that it serves in the neighborhood- both as a place where healthy food is bought and sold and as a gathering place where neighbors can connect and help develop their community. Ultimately, the Market prides itself on the ability to bring healthy, high quality food to its neighbors in Montavilla.

While it is great that each week, neighbors connect and enjoy each others' company at the Market as they shop for a week's worth of delectable offerings, it is of a concern that hungry residents of Montavilla may not be taking advantage of the Market's offerings. Why is this? What barriers can be identified to help reduce hunger in Montavilla? Do these residents even know of the Market's existence, or of the Market's ability to accept food stamps, even offering matching incentives to food stamp users?

The effort to examine and develop strategies to these questions led to the Market serving as a steering committee member of the Multnomah Food Initiative. Last fall, Multnomah County passed a resolution that developed an initiative examining the region's food system, and to develop an action plan that would make this food system more strong and resilient. The Initiative is broken down into four phases, the first of which aggregated multiple studies of the local food system into the Multnomah Food Report. Phase Two of the Action Plan is engaging the community at the Multnomah Food Summit on Saturday, May 1 at the University Place Hotel. The Food Report will be shared as a proposed framework for the action plan, and participants of the summit will offer feedback and criticisms before the plan is shared with the wider community.

The framework has identified four pillars of action that the plan will comprehensively address: local food, healthy eating, social equity, and economic vitality. The Market considers these action pillars of equal priority, and tries to address each of them as it continues to develop as an organization. As some might recall, the Market conducted a survey during the off-season, collecting information in an attempt to gauge how the Market is doing in regard to these various action pillars. Although no information is ready to be presented- the data is still being analyzed by a crack team of researchers (okay, the Market's assistant manager), the findings will be made available later this summer, and probably shared on this blog.

The Montavilla Farmers Market is proud to be on the Steering Committee of the Multnomah Food Initiative, and is excited about the potential results that the MFI will generate. While the Market has had an opportunity to interact with various community organizations in the development of this Initiative, as the community engagement phase is being entered into, we would like to hear feedback from the Market's ever-important customers. How would you define a farmers market, and what role do you feel a farmers market should fill in the community? Has the Montavilla Farmers Market done a good job addressing the four action pillars identified by the Multnomah Food Initiative, or could anything be suggested to improve our efforts? And if you might perhaps be attending the Food Initiative, please provide feedback of your experiences! We would like to know!

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