25 Years of Bringing Farmers to the City and New Orleanians to the Table
by Mimi Greenwood Knight
WITH A SIMPLE handshake, the Crescent City Farmers Market began 25 years ago. No lease. No talk of insurance. And no idea where such an endeavor might lead, in a city not exactly known for healthy lifestyle choices. What it has become is one of the country’s quintessential farm-to-table programs with six thriving market locations around the city; arms that help make fresh, local food available to schools and area welfare programs, educational platforms that teach children and adults about healthy food choices; philanthropic branches that help support local farm families; and more.
Since 1995, Crescent City Farmers Market has not only helped make NOLA citizens healthier, but has provided our local farmers, ranchers, fishers, beekeepers, herbalists, mushroom-tenders, dairy folk, horticulturalists, orchard growers, shepherds, and artisan chefs and bakers with the ability to earn a living doing what they do best. Charise Poche is one of them. She and her husband have been selling their seasonal fruits and veggies at the markets since 2013. They farm on a six-acre micro-farm in Independence, Louisiana, with help from their two grown kids, Billie and Camille. “Small farms do not get much support from the community and none from the government,” says Poche. “We do all our work ourselves and sell mostly to individual consumers with a lot of good customers coming to our table at the market, every week.”
Poche says it’s a misconception that shopping at the farmers market is expensive. “As local farmers, we don’t have to charge state taxes,” she says. “And farmers market food doesn’t go bad like the food from the store, because what we’re selling today, we picked yesterday. So, it tastes better and it’s not consuming all that fossil fuel being shipped across the country.”
The farmers market allows New Orleans area citizens to buy food directly from vendors like the Poches; folks who grew it, raised it, caught it, cultivated it, baked or cooked it, providing that crucial link between urban dwellers and farmers, and offering local citizens the opportunity to support small, family-owned businesses. Everything sold at the markets was grown, raised, or caught within 200 miles of New Orleans. Much of it is organic or “certified naturally grown” and all is sustainably produced.
In a city where public markets have long been a vital thread of the social fabric, market organizers work hard—and innovatively—to make the market experience friendly and approachable. And at a time when most large US cities include food desserts where residents have no access to affordable, nutritious foods, Crescent City Farmers Market locations are strategically placed around the city to offer everyone a fair shot at eating right. “Our mission is to support the local food economy and bolster farmers, ranchers, and fishermen. But it’s also to make nutritious food accessible to everyone,” says Kate Parker, Executive Director of Market Umbrella, the New-Orleans-based 501(c)(3) that runs the markets. “Our vendors take pride in what they do. They love nothing more than answering questions about their products and their farms. We encourage shoppers to ask farmers, ‘How should I prepare this?’ Often, they’ll have a recipe on hand they can give the shopper, and there are always recipes on our website.”
Another way they make healthy food available is through participation in the Market Match program. Qualified recipients can use their SNAP benefit card at the market’s welcome tent to purchase tokens used to buy market products. When they do, the market matches up to $20 of their purchase at each visit to be used on fruits and vegetables, so they go home with even more fresh food, and also learn cooking tips and how to stretch their dollars, by purchasing at the peak of each season. They also participate in the USDA Farmers Market Nutrition Program that distributes vouchers to seniors and WIC recipients to use shopping at the markets.
“The farmers market can be more affordable than the grocery store, if you understand what time of year to shop for which items,” says Parker. “We want to get that message out to the people who need to hear it.” Since 2008, the Market Match program has helped more than 2,500 New Orleans households who need a little extra help putting healthy food on the table. And Market Umbrella partners with local hospitals and clinics to teach healthy cooking classes to parenting groups.
The market is a fun place for kids, not just because there’s usually live, local music but there are kids’ programs like the Marketeers Club where kids under 12 participate in activities such as making healthy pizza or churning butter, learn surprising facts about the food they eat, and receive special treats on their birthdays.
Then there are the school programs. As partners of the National Farm to School Network, Market Umbrella connects farms to school food providers, school garden instructors, school nutrition authorities, educators, and anyone involved in school food programs. They offer hands-on market fieldtrips where local school kids meet farmers and other purveyors face to face. “Meet Me at the Market is often the first place local kids encounter the families who produce the food they eat,” says Parker. “Pre-kindergarten through sixth-grade kids meet farmers, learn to identify produce, and learn that food is not just something that comes from a shelf in the grocery store.” Afterwards, grant funds provide participating children from majority low-income schools with fresh produce and a recipe for preparing it.
Market Umbrella is also partnering with Sprout NOLA to help ten local schools establish or refurbish school vegetable gardens. LSU Ag also provides schools with Louisiana Harvest of the Month toolkits that include educational and marketing materials for teachers and school staff featuring local produce.
Market Mommas Club is a breastfeeding incentive program that allows mothers and mothers-to-be currently eligible for Louisiana Medicaid to partner with a breastfeeding peer group and receive a Market Mommas Card. The moms attend breastfeeding support groups where they can meet other nursing moms and ask questions of lactation professionals. Their card is stamped at the meeting. Then they can bring it to any Crescent City Farmers Market to receive $80 in tokens to spend at the market, each month for up to 6 months. “The goal is to get Mom as healthy as possible, so she can breastfeed as long as possible, because we know that’s the best thing for her and her baby,” says Parker.
Market Umbrella’s Crescent Fund helps vendors who’ve experienced damage from disasters such as hurricanes or floods or the loss of a primary operator of the family business. After the August 2016 floods, for instance, they granted assistance to farmers who experienced severe flooding with all donations going directly to the families affected. “When a farm goes under, there’s a ripple effect that impacts the farm family, their employees, and the community at large,” says Parker. “It’s important that we support our local farmers, so we can keep the food here in Louisiana.”
Crescent City Farmers Markets are held Tuesdays Uptown at Uptown Square, Wednesdays in the Bywater at the Crescent Park and Ochsner Rehabilitation Center in Jefferson, Thursdays in Mid-City on Orleans Avenue at the American Can Company, Fridays in Bucktown at the Harbor, and Saturdays Downtown. And as Louisiana seasons are ever changing, the market is different each week.
“New Orleans is a place where we eat lunch and talk about dinner,” says Parker. “The Crescent City Farmers Market is the place New Orleanians can find the best Louisiana has to offer in fruits, vegetables, seafood, meats, dairy, and artisan foods. Our organization is nothing without the local food producers and wouldn’t exist without the support of the local community.” See you at the market!