You all know I've been longing for Spring in a major way. So much so, I started looking around for information on the opening dates for farmers markets in the area. I was excited to see that one of my favorite markets, the Penn Quarter Farmers Market, was opening on April 2nd and also curious to see if any new vendors would be added. With this in mind, I reached out to Liz Falk, FRESHFARM’s DC Program Manager, to discuss what consumers can expect at the markets this season and about the history, mission and goals of the organization.
Fans of farmers markets in the DC area are well aware of FRESHFARM Markets, the nonprofit responsible for the markets at Dupont Circle, Penn Quarter, H Street, Foggy Bottom and many others. The original purpose behind FRESHFARM Markets was “to help support the small and medium sized farmers in the Chesapeake region by creating urban marketplaces for them to sell their products”, Liz said. The concept began as an idea presented to the American Farmland Trust board members and Bernadine “Bernie” Prince, then a development director at the organization, helped bring it to fruition. Their first market opened in Dupont Circle in 1997 and there are now eight markets spanning the Chesapeake Bay region.
When asked about how farmers are selected for the markets, Liz informed me there is an application process to become a FRESHFARM vendor. In order to be considered, applicants must be in the Chesapeake Bay region and grow the food they sell (as opposed to purchasing goods from another merchant and then selling it at the farmers market). If a potential vendor wants to sell finished goods (for example, breads, pies or preserves), a certain percentage of the finished product must be made from local farm products. In addition, a representative from the farm must be on hand during market hours. There is a strict “no hormones or antibiotics” rule for all meat and dairy products and beef should come from grass fed cows. Although organic farming practices are encouraged, they are not required for farmers who sell at FRESHFARM markets. However, most of the farmers use organic methods (but opt not to go through the sometimes costly and convoluted certification process) or alternative, non-chemical pest management processes.
The application is not the only part of the process, however. Liz stressed that “once a [farmer or producer] applies to sell at one of our markets, we conduct farm visits to ensure they are in fact growing what they sell” and meet the requirements set forth by the market. These visits also allow FRESHFARM to get to know the farmers and producers better and their farming and manufacturing process. These visits (which occur at least once every two years - even after a producer is accepted at a market) creates accountability for the producers and provides assurances to market shoppers that they are, in fact, buying directly from the farm.
In keeping with FRESHFARM’s goal of making local, fresh produce available to all regardless of socioeconomic status, FRESHFARM markets have several local programs aimed at lower income families and individuals. According to Liz, both the EBT and WIC programs allow those who are not financially stable access to quality produce. At both the H Street and Silver Spring markets, EBT/Food Stamp recipients can use their benefits to shop for food items from participating vendors at the market. Senior citizens who are enrolled in the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) and those enrolled in WIC can also use their benefits to shop at participating vendors as well (there are restrictions on when these benefits can be used). While participation in these programs is voluntary for farmers at the markets, Liz has been working in conjunction with the Maryland Department of Health nutrition program to get more to participate.
FRESHFARM also participates in school programs to educate children about farming, gardening and cooking nutritious, healthy meals. Called FoodPrints, the program allows FRESHFARM to work in conjunction with area schools to create a curriculum aimed at teaching school aged children about the joys and benefits of locally grown foods. This school year FRESHFARM has been working with Watkins Elementary school, located in Southeast DC. The curriculums include teaching the students about gardening and farming techniques, as well as actual hands on experience creating and maintaining a garden on school grounds.
The most exciting part of my conversation with Liz was discussing the upcoming market season. When asked what FRESHFARM had in store for this year, Liz said Penn Quarter will have a new organic farmer, as well as a lamb vendor! “We are looking into expanding some of our markets, to support more farmers and provide customers with more selection,” Liz said. Although she couldn’t provide too many details about specific expansion plans, Liz did say FRESHFARM was working on projects that may result in larger markets and/or a more diverse group of producers. In addition, the popular Chef at Market program will be back in full force at the various markets, along with cooking demonstrations and “ask the gardener” sessions at the H Street market. And the biggest event this year at FRESHFARM is their annual Farm Land feast. Planning for the event, which includes a four course meal prepared by some of DC’s top chefs, began a month ago and is usually their biggest fundraiser. As I thanked Liz for speaking with me, I thought to myself, “Great, now I really can’t wait for April!”
For the opening dates of the FRESHFARM markets, visit their website.