Confronting food scarcity: Gray Street Farmers Market bringing fresh produce into downtown Louisville

08/10/2017 12:20 PM

LOUISVILLE – Every Thursday, from the middle of May to the end of October, vendor booths dot the area where hospital campuses intertwine in downtown Louisville. As the lunchtime crowd begins to trickle in just a few short hours after opening time, the Gray Street Farmers Market comes alive.

A line of people dressed in scrubs begins to form in front of food trucks while others examine the variety of fresh produce lining tables that stretch an entire block. Bright green cucumbers, red tomatoes larger than a fist and eggs fresh from the farm are among the items available for market goers.

In Kentucky, one in every six people struggles with hunger . And one in five say they have trouble getting affordable fresh produce . Market Manager Sara Frazier says the main goal of farmers markets, like Gray Street, is to increase access to locally grown and healthy food.

“Since we live in a food desert, where there is essentially not a lot of grocery stores, and it’s just difficult to access healthy food, that is our target,” Frazier said. “For the residents and just the people that live in the community, those are the people we are trying to target and just let them know that this is a resource we are offering to them.”

A holistic approach

The vendors at Gray Street aren’t just selling locally grown food. The market also includes informational booths, which help to provide families with the means to sustain healthy lifestyles. The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP-Ed) tent is run by the University of Kentucky’s Jefferson County Cooperative Extension.

Hayley Pierce, an Extension Agent with the Jefferson Cooperative Extension Office, says that land grant universities, like UK and Kentucky State University, consider the external community in its overall purpose.

“Most universities have education and research as part of their mission,” Pierce said. “Well, in a land grant institution, there is a third mission and that is education and outreach. So that’s really what a land grant university is. It’s taking knowledge from the university and research from the university and extending that out to the public.”

UK runs cooperative extensions in every Kentucky county. And each county extension’s mission is tailored to the specific needs of that county.

“We have volunteers, and we have interested parties that come in and tell us what they need in the county,” Pierce said. “Our extension program here looks a little differently than you might find in a surrounding county.”

Bethany Pratt is the cooperative extension’s Agent for Horticulture Education and, in Louisville, she works with urban farming.

“What that looks like on a day-to-day basis is doing programs at community centers, schools, the park service,” Pratt said. “Teaching people how to mostly grow their own food, and then be self-sufficient and be good environmental stewards in that process.”

The cooperative offers a wide range of nutrition classes and Joel Worth, the Family and Consumer Science Program Assistant, says the classes are designed to fit into clients’ individual schedules.

“The great thing about this program is you don’t have to come to me, I come to you,” Worth said. “As long as I have four people in a group, I can teach a class.”

Every year, the cooperative extension aligns its objectives with a plan of work to determine and address the biggest concerns of the county in which they operate. Pierce says the needs change every year, and when they last restructured their plan, they found people in Jefferson County had concerns about a wide range of issues.

“What we found is that people are very concerned about gardening, about organic foods, about nutrition, their health and their safety,” Pierce said. “So we’re focusing a lot on that through our programs.”

One big issue the cooperative extension works to address is food insecurity. Feeding America, a nonprofit organization, defines food insecurity as “a household’s inability to provide enough food for every person to live an active, healthy life.” Feeding America estimates that 743,310 Kentuckians are food insecure, and more than 17 percent (129,530) live in Jefferson County.

Members of the cooperative extension explain that scarce access to food is caused by a multitude of reasons.

“I think of it as a combination of lack of money, financial resources and then also a lack of access to fresh foods,” Pratt said. “Lack of access can look like lack of transportation, physical location and able to gather those things that we need.”

Pierce echoed the idea that access is really the key to what causes food to be scarce in some households. Additionally, Pierce says it is not just food in general being inaccessible; it’s an inaccessibility to nutritious food.

“Food scarcity is really about access, food access,” Pierce said. “And when we talk about food scarcity we’re not just talking about just a lack of food, but a lack of quality food.”

Filling the socioeconomic gap

Worth highlighted the economics of the situation. Not only are lower income households able to afford less, but grocery stores that sell more nutritious food are less inclined to move into high-poverty areas.

“You’re not going to see major food companies going into a poor neighborhood,” Worth said. “You’re going to get the supermarkets that tend for more those clienteles, and we know what those supermarkets are, but you’re not going to see a Tom’s or you’re not going to see a Fresh Market in a lower income neighborhood.”

Pierce says that the main areas of the city that are impacted by food scarcity are the west and south ends of the county. She and Pratt both pointed to not only a lack of grocery stores, but also a lack of access to transportation as to why those communities have a hard time accessing quality food.

“Louisville does not have grocery stores, full service grocery stores, that have consistent quality fresh produce available in all areas,” Pratt said. “So we have some challenges here with neighbors who are physically located far away from a food source, and maybe unable to get there because of transportation because of their work schedules.”

Pratt says that one of the ways the cooperative extension helps address those problems is through education, noting the thoroughness of those classes.

“[Joel Worth] teaches people about how to cook and prepare all those fresh foods, and also about budgeting,” Pratt said. “And how to use any supplemental funding that you may get for nutrition such as SNAP, which is the supplemental nutrition assistance program, and how to stretch those dollars at places like the Gray Street Farmers Market.”

Pratt says that farmers markets help increase access to healthy and fresh food. The Gray Street Market is located in the heart of downtown Louisville where freshly picked produce is not easy to come by.

“This is the farmers market closest to the west end. You can’t get any fresher than a farmers market,” Pratt said. “Most of the things that are here were picked sometimes this morning, maybe last night, so it’s really fresh it’s all locally grown, from a nutritional stand point it’s really healthy for you.”

As opposed to local farmers who profit from their participation, the cooperative extension does not sell anything at the Gray Street Farmers Market. Instead, Worth runs an educational booth that provides information on healthy eating, recipe cards and usually a sample of a dish made of food you can buy at the market.

Gray Street is not the only market where you’ll find the cooperative extension. Pierce says that markets are tailored to address the needs of specific demographics affected by food scarcity.

“If you are in St Matthews, let’s say for instance, the demographic there that we are trying to target specifically would be senior citizens,” Pierce said. “There is a high population of senior citizens there, there is also a cluster of people on SNAP benefits, which you may not think of but again it’s that senior citizen population.”

Low-income families have been able to use SNAP benefits, sometimes referred to as food stamps, at farmers markets across the state since 2015. That has helped open up access to nutritious and locally grown food, but as Frazier explains, the cost of food at farmers markets is still a big barrier.

“The cost might be a little bit higher than you would typically encounter at a grocery store,” Frazier said. “But that’s also because in addition to the work that the farmers put into they also have to make a profit as well.”

In August of last year the double dollars program was launched at four Louisville farmers markets in order to try and combat the higher prices.

“If you’re SNAP recipient you come down to the market, we swipe your EBT card and you just let know how much you would like to spend at the market and we match that amount up to $20,” Frazier said.

Cost is not the only barrier people have to accessing nutritious food. Frazier says one of the biggest challenges for the Gray Street Market is awareness.

“If people aren’t aware that we are here and that we are offering programs to help them access resources then it’s definitely not going to benefit them,” Frazier said. “You can’t take advantage of something that you don’t know about.”

The Gray Street Farmers Market is the closest market to the west side of Louisville. Pierce says most of the farmers markets in Jefferson County are mostly on the east side of the county.

“You’re really missing a whole section of the population through the farmers markets and that means that they’re having to leave their home community to go to a farmers market,” Pierce said. “And for some people, that’s fine. They can. For others, not so much. So you’re really leaving out that target.”

She says that one of the reasons that parts of the county, such as Louisville’s west end, have more poverty and also don’t have easy access to farmers market is because of where vendors are located. Pierce says that you don’t see a lot of farms in the west end, meaning that vendors would have to travel further to sell to customers in that part of the county.

“The further into the city you go the harder it is to transport and the more transportation cost goes up,” Pierce said. “So it’s harder for vendors to get into the deep pockets of the city.”

Pierce says the more transportation costs go up, the more vendors need to make at the market.

Pierce says getting vendors to farmers markets in areas that don’t have easy to access to nutritious food is a challenge, and is one they are still working on. Incentivizing vendors is one, but Pierce says the challenge there is finding the right incentive and the resources to provide it.

“Resources are scarce everywhere, especially in a local economy,” Pierce said. “So finding the incentive that works is difficult and has been difficult, but there are a lot of smart people working on this.”

Farmers markets are just one way communities are working to address a lack of access to nutritious food. Unlike other solutions for addressing food scarcity, farmers markets can target very specific areas of cities, counties and communities.

They, however, do have their own limitations. Location, cost of goods, hours of operation and awareness are all potential barriers between farmers markets and potential customers. Pure Politics will continue to examine the different ways people, policy makers and organizations are confronting food scarcity to find sustainable solutions.

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