More than Hyperlocal Produce – How Farmers Markets Drive a Sense of Community
On any given Saturday morning, on the grounds of the Lafayette Elementary School on Broad Branch Road, you’ll find about 300 loyal neighbors making their way through the Chevy Chase Farmers Market.
They eagerly get their fill of fresh fruits and vegetables grown around the DMV, cheese made in PA, handmade bonbons, bread, hummus sold by local farmers and artisans, a lot of whom are women. The market is woman-managed and a nurturing platform for women- and minority-owned businesses.
Other than the Saturday markets, they also host several social events. “The market has always been a social hub and neighborhood hangout,” says Market Manager Pallavi.
Since it was established in 2000, Chevy Chase Farmers Market has faithfully served this Northwest DC neighborhood, providing fresh foods and bringing the community together.
Community at the Chevy Chase Farmers Market
Vendors at the markets are equal parts merchants and educators who share their knowledge to enlighten buyers about seasonality, crop variety, and nutrition. This creates a vibrant market culture that superseded commercial ties.
Farmer Alan & Farmer Megan from Thornton River Orchard speaks about apples, cider making, and vinegar mother with their buyers. The weekly e-newsletter from Farmer Brett of Even’ Star Farm is filled with insights on produce and land stewardship. Brian from CheeseGoatees happily explains the science behind goat cheese making, and Paul from Groff's Content Farm will talk at length about the animals at his farm. Farmer John from Milk and Honey Farms spends minutes if not hours with each customer explaining the details about the beautiful all organic produce he grows.
Encouraged by the market, buyers return used egg cartons to Groff’s Content Farm and packing bags and packaging containers to TrishtanFoods. It’s an environmentally-conscious practice and a promise of the next visit.
And it’s these bonds built around food, health, and wellbeing that foster the community.
Social Events at the Chevy Chase Farmers Market
A weekly trip to the farmers market is not just a gathering of provisions. The social aspect is equally as important.
When the market decided to stay open during the pandemic, it proved to be a blessing for many Chevy Chase residents. The Saturday morning trip became their singular social encounter.
Besides supporting the local residents by providing fresh food, offering space to political candidates for canvassing, and being the platform to raise and sign petitions, Chevy Chase Farmers Market hosts several social events. This year, they held their first holiday market with local artists, small businesses, and enthusiastic residents.
Beautiful clay pottery from DC artists Katie Maciocha and Katie Burke, watercolor and embroidery art from Sailor Kid,Sisal baskets from Zamfa Collections, handmade bird treats by From the Heart, handmade felt soaps from CostaCosmetics, and expressive stickers by artist Trish (Baer Scribbles) – the November Holiday Market revealed just how many wonderful creators live in the locality and provided the community a way to support them.
Support for the community was also at the heart of what made the chaotic months of the pandemic bearable for Chevy Chase. A Recent 2020 donation on behalf of the market, by treasurer Amy, to Lafayette Gives Back (Lafayette Elementary School PTSA) helped provide gift cards to 100 DCPS students and their families.
Market Vendors and Consumers Ban Together During the Pandemic
The shelter-in-place orders coincided with the peak growing season.
Shuttering the market would have meant “denying small farmers the only opportunity to sell their products, and consumers access to fresh, local food from a safe, open-air environment,” according to Chevy Chase Farmers Market Manager Pallavi. With the closure of hotels and other businesses, it would also have led to colossal food waste. “We were duty-bound to remain open.”
Following the cautionary measures released by Mayor Bowser’s office and DC Department of Health, the market’s website became a focal point. Pallavi updated the site with pre-order links to all vendors and posted details on social media.
The vendors already had loyal customers, making it easier for them to sell online, do home deliveries, and accommodate special orders. Many farms, like Thornton River Orchard, did CSAs, and others, like Rustiq Bakery and TrishtanFoods, started doing pre-orders and meal kits.
With easy access to locally-grown foods and their work in uplifting their communities, clearly, farmers markets are essential businesses.
Supporting Women- and Minority-Owned Businesses at the Chevy Chase Farmers Market
The food industry is male-dominated, competitive, and skewed towards legacy companies. And supermarkets bet on conventional products, eschewing minority businesses and perpetuating cultural appropriation.
But some woman-led farmers markets, like Chevy Chase, are bringing about a significant change. Here, Market Manager Pallavi, Treasurer Amy, and most of the Board Members are women.
“Our market’s philosophy is gender parity and uplifting the community. We take great pride in working with and advocating for women-owned businesses,” Pallavi said. About 50% of the businesses here are women-owned or co-owned, and nearly a third are BIPOC-owned.
In 2019, the market started hosting pop-ups with the deliberate goal to support women and minority-owned businesses. Thanks to their strict vetting based on “a high local quotient, sustainable sourcing, and unique products,” the Chevy Chase community now has access to Tunisian olive oil, Lebanese Manoushe, traditional Chinese foods made with local ingredients, and locally-brewed kombucha.
It’s easy to see why Chevy Chase has received these diverse pop-ups with open arms.
Myths Surrounding Farmers Market and Why They Are Struggling
Most farmers markets are run by non-profits on razor-thin budgets. And the pandemic has increased their overheads. They continue operating without any firm commitment from the local, state, or federal governments.
Chevy Chase Farmers Market remained open during the shelter-in-place thanks to the support of the community and its vendors.
So, why do farmers markets continue to struggle?
Despite their popularity, farmers markets are often viewed as expensive, inconvenient, and a secondary or tertiary place of shopping.
But studies (PDF) have found that not only are their products priced similarly to grocery stores, in the case of organic, the price is much less!
Producers-only markets, like Chevy Chase, give vendors autonomy over their produce and pricing. Hence, farmers get better returns, which allow them to invest in nutrition-dense seeds, diverse crops, and heirloom varieties.
They leave grocery stores in the dust when it comes to quality and make convenience seem overrated.
Why Everyone Should Support Their Farmers Market
More than a place to secure farm-fresh produce, farmers markets keep consumers engaged in their food sources and their communities’ welfare. They help preserve farmlands, reclaim biodiversity, and showcase the distinct cultural heritage of a region. Farmers markets also bridge divides across race, age, gender, and economic strata.
But these markets can only thrive with ample support from consumers.
Without the Chevy Chase community’s staunch backing, the market could not thrive. This small market hosted about 200 visitors per Saturday last year, which doubled during the pandemic and has currently rounded out to about 300-350 visitors.
Despite competing for space, worrying about sustaining interest, and volatile pandemic-related changes, the Chevy Chase Farmers Market has grown. It’s a testament to their loyal customer base.
Then again, for the role that farmers markets play in nurturing the community, supporting them is a privilege.