Tag Archives: Food

The Triumph of the Farmers’ Market

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Farmers’ market, Portland Oregon; by Peteforsyth (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nothing quite says springtime like a farmer’s table loaded with kale, mustard greens, and spinach. And with the arrival of warmer days, soon communities will be enjoying the benefits of fresh, locally grown produce. Though farmers’ markets are often criticized over affordability and exclusivity, the appetite for them has grown significantly. In 1994, there were 1,700 markets nationwide; now, there are more than eight thousand.

The proliferation of baby bok choy is indeed cause for praise. Markets help circulate dollars locally. More vegetables mean slimmer waistlines. And farmers’ markets can revitalize neighborhoods. These markets can also serve as a setting for what Jane Jacobs called the “sidewalk ballet,” a public space connecting people to each other. Their diverse functions—shopping, eating, or simply engaging neighbors—facilitate social interactions. In fact, the farmers’ market is unfortunately one of the few remaining civic places that facilitates such shared public encounters.

The decline of mixed public spaces can be traced back to the early twentieth century, when public officials began partitioning cities into areas based on functionality. At first, zoning was a public health initiative, especially in industrial cities plagued with unregulated pollution, rubbish disposal, and sewage handling. To keep factories and housing far apart, urban planners created restricted residential and industrial zones. However, a form of zoning logic, known as redlining, began to isolate populations of the city along lines of race and class. (The effects of redlining became more pronounced by the mid-twentieth century.) With the further help of the automobile and the suburbs, American cities became even more demographically and functionally divided.

Zoning has led to dispersed cities with low population densities, often with highly homogenized neighborhoods and voting districts. Political polarization between conservatives and liberals is geographical, not just cultural. Suburban sprawl may make it easier to live with (seldom encountered) difference, but it prevents a shared sense of identity and place.

Commercially speaking, zoning ended the traditional mixing of shops and homes, even making such mixed use illegal in most cities. The corner store disappeared and supermarkets and shopping centers appeared in other parts of town, supplemented by big-box retailers and malls in the suburbs. Increasingly, these private spaces have become places where customer behavior is scripted and highly monitored by data-driven retailers.  Although great for shopping, these homogenous spaces are ill-suited for fostering robust social interaction and local identity.

Farmers’ markets, on the other hand, operate under their own unique logic. As shared, fluid open spaces, they encourage novelty and flexibility. Vendors and wares come and go, customer traffic patterns are random and unscripted. These markets defy easy classification and regulation. According to the Project for Public Space, “Traditional public markets are about so much more than food. They are, like the cities that they support, about people. They are some of our most vital public spaces.”

The farmers’ market does not replace the local supermarket, but rather supplements it as a much-needed space for mediation and cohesion across communities inside and outside of the city. The vegetables grown at the farm down the road connect people to the particular nuances of their region. City markets represent an intersection between town and country. The urbanite and rustic become partners and purveyors in the same community. Ultimately, farmers’ markets make visible what has otherwise been rendered invisible by supply chains and clever marketing.

At the same time, it’s true that farmers’ markets reinforce social divisions. Community stakeholders, then, should stay attuned to the needs of the city and ensure that these markets remain open and equitable. While farmers’ markets won’t fix the polarization plaguing our cities, they do further the kind of communal spirit that is so often missing in urban locales. Our cities don’t just need farmers’ markets: They need more places like them.

Stephen Assink works for Thriving Cities Project. He also manages and curates the Common Place blog.

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Richmond and the Future of Local Food

Editor’s note: In May, Whole Foods announced that it was opening a new a location in Richmond, VA—a pilot city for the Thriving Cities Project. Shortly after this news, Richmond native and pastor Nelson Reveley appeared as a guest blogger on Common Place, analyzing what this development might mean for the citizens of Richmond. Here, director of Shalom Farms, Dominic Barrett offers his own perspective on the matter. 

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Above: Farmers come in all ages at Shalom Farms.

I should start by noting that personally and professionally I possess a plethora of potential conflicts of interest in exploring what a Whole Foods in urban richmond means for the city, its eaters, and the food system at large. My nonprofit, Shalom Farms has received grants and support from Whole Foods. And as for the enterprises Whole Foods will likely compete with, we receive ongoing support from local grocers Ellwood Thompson and Little House Green Grocer, not to mention that I’m an active member of the yet-to-be opened Richmond Food Co-op.

It’s hard to find a true “bad guy” in the natural/organic/local food scene. The question for me is not whether Whole Foods moving in is a good thing. Rather, I am more interested in understanding the scope of the potential impact, what gaps may remain, and what models may be better solutions.

Although I have yet to see full details of the Sauer Center (proposed home of Whole Foods), it seems a fine addition to an evolving part of Richmond’s inner core. It may even, as Nelson suggests, support in a small way the viability of a much-needed Rapid Transit project connecting the city’s East and West Ends. And, as Nelson touches on, another profitable Whole Foods in our region will mean at least a percentage of those profits are likely to end up back in the community—supporting local school gardens and other worthy projects via Whole Foods’ charitable work.

Some have expressed concern over what Whole Foods might mean for the burgeoning local grocery scene. When the doors open on Ricmond’s newest Whole Foods, it will be two miles from Ellwood Thompson’s (the biggest guy on the local grocer block), three miles from Little House Green Grocer (a smaller but relatively new and promising local option), and less than one mile from where the Richmond Food Co-op plans to open a full service grocery co-op in the next two years. Without looking at any market data, my gut feeling is that Whole Foods will not pose a threat to these local establishments.

Why not? Because of the 550 and counting members of the opening co-op and the many loyal patrons of Little House and Ellwood Thompson’s. In spite of the presence of Whole Foods, many of these shoppers will continue to seek options that will both maximize the local impact of their dollars and increase their access to locally sourced products, supporting local growers and producers.

We find ourselves at a unique moment. Growing acceptance of the challenges of climate change has coincided with the trendiness and “cool factor” of the local food movement. Yet, turning these forces into brick and mortar, topsoil and tractor, can feel slow. In any given season, local vendors may one moment find themselves unable to meet customer demand for an item, yet days later unable to move a local product quickly enough. Similarly, local, sustainable farmers find themselves struggling to find viable business models, unable to scale up to meet potential institutional buyers or to pay the bills adequately by relying on direct-to-consumer sales. But for many growers, and the consumers looking for a local product they can feel good about, Whole Foods is not likely to be a game changer.

With months to go before Whole Foods opens its doors, hundreds of Richmonders have demonstrated a commitment to finding a better way: the Richmond Food Co-op. They have invested $150 each to be a part of a community driven and owned grocery option—a commitment so strong that investments are coming in even before the Co-op location has been finalized. Co-ops work because they can harness economies of scale, resulting in lower prices for consumers, larger margins for the producers, and maximum flexibility for local growers. They also allow members a voice in the decisions of the store.

However, despite the lower mark-ups made possible by a member-owned model, even co-opers like myself admit that it may be only a modest improvement for those Richmonders who lack the means—economic or transportation—to access to the highest quality, sustainably grown local produce. For many, particularly those living in the East End, South Side, and North Side, quality affordable grocery options will continue to be hard to come by. For these folks, a co-op will be a small improvement, and a Whole Foods on West Broad Street will be of little consequence. But here again, a forthcoming local business may fill in the gap.

Jim Scanlon, a 40-year veteran of the grocery business, resigned just last week from his role as Regional Vice President of Martin’s Food Marts where he oversaw all of Martin’s 34 stores in Virginia. In his new venture, he is pursuing a plan that he has been quietly developing for the better part of a decade. In 2015, he hopes to break ground on Jim’s Local Market in Richmond’s East End, less than a mile from the bulk of Richmond’s public housing units. His store will leverage his expertise and relationships in the grocery industry to provide the same variety, quality, and prices of national chains, something small independents are not typically able to do. Meanwhile, his independent community-focused store will have the freedom to source from small local providers, provide incentives for low-income shoppers, and partner with the local health experts to provide educational programming. Finally, community members will help determine how a percentage of the pre-tax profits are returned to the neighborhood.

For both the Richmond Food Co-op and Jim’s Local Market, it is the local element that provides the most promise and may be what most separates these models from a company like Whole Foods. More than ever we need locally based solutions to transform our communities, and nowhere is this more clear or powerful than with our food.

Dominic Barrett is director of Shalom Farms, an initiative of United Methodist Urban Ministries of Richmond.

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Snapshots of City Life: Music, Commuter Cycling, and Other Stories

Gathered from around the web, these articles should interest every Common Place reader. Though each story touches on different facets of city life—music, urban farm stands, and biking— they highlight different questions and challenges related to urban thriving.

How a Tiny Record Label Jump-Started One Midwestern City’s Arts Economy

A city’s music scene oftentimes refers to its smoky dive bars,  screaming concert halls, or even the local bands eager to breakout. Yet, the indie record label, Asthmatic Kitten, has been quietly transforming the way Indianapolis engages its musicians. In addition to creating creating local venues for artists, Asthmatic Kitten’s manager, Michael Kaufmann, helped establish a city music council. “Made up of a diverse cross-section of music professionals,” journalist Michael Seman explains that “the council includes representatives from local blogs, indie labels, the chamber of commerce, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and educational institutions. Its goal is to influence city policies that might foster growth for the music scene while also developing the city’s creative economy.” Music not only brings together crowds for concerts, but also, as this article details, brings together urban leaders for the good of the city.

To Cool Cities, Build Them Tall and Shiny

As the world continues to warm, the city with its jungle of concrete and steel is particularly susceptible. This article details how one scholar, Lei Zhou, is seeking to understand the complex factors that contribute to what is known as the “urban heat island effect.” That is, urban areas that are hotter than the surrounding countryside. Although Zhou’s findings indicate that a city’s humidity is the largest factor, urban design certainly is important. Urban design then requires not just accounting for social variables but also, increasingly, environmental factors.

Farm stands turn your backyard kale into cold, hard cash

Although a common feature on America’s back roads, farm stands, according to this article, are now beginning to pop up all across our cities. Yet, the produce sold is grown in city backyards and community food plots, rather than the open acres of rural farmland. Despite some resistance from city governments, this nascent trend is indicative of a larger urban-food movement that only continues to grow.  It also shows that people can grow healthy food in and for cities while also making a little bit of money.

Restaurants Really Can Determine the Fate of Cities and Neighborhoods

In other urban-food related news, this article reports on a new survey that argues that restaurants play a role in urban renewal. According to journalist Anthony Flint, “Restaurants are the leading force behind reclaimed waterfronts and regenerating neighborhoods, and are a key component of mixed-use development and urban retail. When a part of the city puts itself on the map, it’s often because of wave of trendy eateries have opened there.” Although elements of gentrification are at play, organizations and governments intent on urban thriving would do well to recognize the cultural power of food—a topic that we have explored here.

How Low-Income Commuters View Cycling

Although cycling is often touted for its environmental and health benefits, it has yet to make a dent in urban transportation. One reason that is often cited is the disparity of use between affluent and poor residents. Survey data by researchers in Washington, D.C., found that commute times are oftentimes longer for low-income workers thus making the option to bike seem impractical. In turn, researchers suggest that along with building more biking infrastructure, cities should continue to improve upon preexisting public transportation. We are reminded again that even good urban policies such as encouraging bike use still need to account for everyone’s needs.

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Whole Foods in Richmond

Whole Foods is headed to Richmond proper. In early May, Whole Foods Market announced that it had signed a lease for a 40,000 square foot store in the Sauer Center, a planned mixed-use development on the north side of Richmond’s historic Fan District. Although a Whole Foods has been firmly ensconced in the burgeoning suburb of Short Pump since 2008, a swiftly-developing area about 7 miles west of the city in Henrico County, this store at the Sauer Center will be the first taste of the chain within the city limits.

 

With a mix of new construction and historic buildings, the Sauer Center will include not only the 133,000 square foot former Virginia Department of Taxation (previously the home of the Stephen Putney Shoe Company), but also the 103-year-old C.F. Sauer Co. spice factory and headquarters. The 20-foot by 60-foot animated “Sauer’s Vanilla” sign still lights up the night sky. Whole Foods has not yet announced a target opening date or its specific location in Sauer Center, but the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that Whole Foods will likely replace the storefront presently occupied by Pleasant’s Hardware, another longtime family-run Richmond establishment until its purchase by the C.F. Sauer Company in 1989.

Although Whole Foods is infamous for devouring whole paychecks in exchange for its environmentally sustainable, animal friendly, fair-trade fare, it promises to be a large draw to the nearby affluent Fan neighborhood. Richmond is fast becoming a city that supports businesses that provide well-crafted food, sourced in a sustainable and ethical manner—particular specialties of Whole Foods.

The Fan Opens Up

More to the point, the Fan has been coalescing into a neighborhood with businesses that draw customers from morning through the evening hours. Roughly two miles west of the planned Sauer Center Whole Foods stands Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market, a thriving local store dedicated to organically grown from nearby farmers. In addition, local restaurants and watering holes, like Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, encourage evening foot traffic.

While Whole Foods prides itself on being responsive to meeting consumers’ demands, it will be entering an increasingly competitive local grocery market, where new stores are seeking to fill the vacuum left by the closing of the regional chain Ukrop’s in 2010. The influx of grocery stores is projected to outpace, if it has not already, the city and the surrounding counties’ capacity to consume.

At the same time, a recent mayoral Food Policy Task Force report noted that Richmond contains about 40 neighborhoods that are food insecure—that is, with low-income residents who live more than a mile from the nearest grocery store. Most of these neighborhoods lie on the city’s South Side, although large pockets of low-income and low-access residents are also found  in the East End and North Side of the city. The projected Whole Foods will likely do little to address issues of food insecurity in Richmond, because it will not be near neighborhoods in need or provide food at in the low-income price range. Indirectly, however, Whole Foods can potentially raise the city’s tax base by attracting further development nearby. In addition, Whole Foods can be become a key donor to the nearby Central Virginia Food Bank.

View of downtown Richmond; credit: Montes-Breadley, iStockphoto.com

View of downtown Richmond; credit: Montes-Bradley, iStockphoto.com

In terms of the competition in Richmond’s grocery market, the Sauer Center Whole Foods will be positioned to do well. Aside from a Kroger a half-mile to the east, Whole Foods will be the only grocery store within reasonable walking and easy biking distance of the Fan. What’s more, this location lies enticingly close to the proposed route for Richmond’s Bus Rapid Transit, a proposed bus system that would travel a dedicated lane roughly from downtown Richmond to the recently revamped Willow Lawn Shopping Center along the city’s western edge. (Although Richmond was home to the first trolley system in the United States in the early 1900s, it currently ranks 92 out of 100 top U.S. cities in public transit access, according to a 2011 Brookings Institute study.)

Increasing Accessibility

Nevertheless, Whole Foods and the Sauer Center will be vital components of a commercial hub that could develop along the Rapid Transit line in the future. Furthermore, the RVA Bus Rapid Transit itself raises the hopeful prospect of increasing the economic, political, and social cohesion of the entire Greater Richmond Area. Reliable transportation could boost employment and education opportunities primarily available to those with cars in affluent zip codes. Such a blossoming of regionalism and accessibility would require the city and surrounding counties to bridge historically deep racial and economic divisions.

The Sauer Center’s Whole Foods also has the potential to be a boon to the health and future of many Richmond residents given its close proximity to institutions of learning. Whole Foods has a well-deserved reputation for increasing people’s access not only to healthy food but also to food education through its Whole Kids Foundation and Whole Cities Foundation. Two public elementary schools, one public middle school, and one public high school lie within a mile radius of the planned Whole Foods, and beyond that is a public middle school, a high school, two private high schools, and a private middle school. Two institutions of higher learning are also nearby: Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) along with its medical school and Virginia Union University (VUU), one of the nation’s oldest historically black colleges.

With FeedMore (the Central Virginia Food Bank combined with Meals on Wheels) a mere mile away and urban gardening movements growing through the work of Shalom Farms, Tricycle Gardens, and the William Byrd Community House, the opportunities abound for collaborative efforts at cultivating awareness and engagement on issues of food justice and land use. Many houses of worship and faith communities also stand close by, ready for deeper theological engagement and outreach on these fronts.

While Whole Foods at the Sauer Center could simply end up being a stop for affluent consumers, there are good reasons to think it will eventually boost employment and general area investment. With the resources, power, and social commitment that Whole Foods has, the possibilities for profound community enrichment are palpable.

 

Nelson Reveley lives in Richmond and is a PhD student in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. His research focuses on theological ethics in relation to the economy as well as the environment. He is also an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA). 

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Coming Together: Food and Art in the City

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Patrons take in the “The Painter’s Table” exhibit,  which was held in conjunction with the New City Arts Forum in Charlottesville, Virginia. Credit: Maggie Stein

Not many things identify a city like its cuisine or its art. At their best, they bring together vastly different people in a variety of common places—restaurants, museums, farmers’ markets. And in an era of entrenched urban divisions and diminishing public spaces, they can be powerful mediums of connection and unity.

A new wave of artists, farmers, chefs, and patrons is now consciously cultivating ways food and art can connect rather than divide. At a recent forum in Charlottesville, Virginia, New City Arts devoted three days to exploring the relationship among art, food, and community. The conference featured speakers intent on fostering community in what some might consider unlikely ways. Each panel included a person connected to food as well as one in the art world. This event created an opportunity for the two different spheres of cultural activity to exchange ideas and develop a common vocabulary.

During one panel, Lee O’Neill a farmer in Central Virginia, and Laura Zabel, a community arts director from St. Paul, Minnesota, discussed ways community-supported models of agriculture and art can creatively engage city residents. O’Neill and Zabel described how by purchasing a farm or art share prior to production or completion, customers become stakeholders in the process rather than mere consumers. Their stories and work become integrated into their community, and in doing so, they are able to connect with their buyers on a different level.

Another panel featured Kate Daughdrill, an artist who converted several vacant lots in Detroit into an urban farm shared with nearby foreign-born residents. According to UIXDetroit.com,The farm serves not only as Daughdrill’s creative hub, but also as a social hub for the neighborhood. Weekly meals are hosted there for neighbors and all sorts of people have become involved.”

In the concluding session, Joanna Taft, an art director in Indianapolis, and Tom Madrecki, an in-home chef in Washington, D.C., explained how they each created hospitable spaces for patron engagement. Taft discussed how exhibits in her art gallery educated audiences by purposely involving them. Madrecki spoke of using his own apartment as a restaurant to bring together strangers over a carefully crafted meal.

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At the New City Arts Forum, artists Kate Daughdrill and Patrick Costello discussed ways their projects facilitate community engagement. Credit: Maggie Stein

While critics decry the loss of public space, many cities are imagining new—and reviving old—forms of community-centered events focused on food and art. These events range from  “pop-up” farmers’ markets to Shakespeare plays in parks. In Richmond, Virginia, the RVA Street Art Festival transformed an abandoned bus depot into a neighborhood treasure. With its colorful outdoor murals, the former depot became a magnet for community activity and celebration that featured local food and beverages. In fact, RVA Street Art boasted that “the converted neighborhood eyesore became one of the city’s most shared social media events of the year.”

More notably, perhaps, cities are producing authentic collective activities in physical places at a time when virtual life supposedly rules. Although digital technologies constantly vie for our attention and can perpetuate urban isolation, the act of eating and sharing art in public together forces us out of our digital cocoons.

Cities are remarkable at producing these kinds of shared public spaces. And although urban life can be divisive, the inescapable embodiment found in art and food compels physical connections and community. Rather than thinking of art as superfluous or food as merely utilitarian, we should consider them critical in shaping a city’s identity and fueling its dynamism. Whether one is a chef, a painter, or simply a lover of good food and art, cities offer rich opportunities for experiencing such pleasures as well as combining them.

Stephen Assink is the Content Curator for the Common Place blog as well as a research assistant at the Institute for Advanced Studies and Culture.   

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