Building a Market at Overton Park
Kimberly Kasper is in her fifth year as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Rhodes College. As an archaeologist, studying food inequality in the South, she and her students have been reconstructing how the slaves lived at nearby Ames Plantation — the landscape and their dietary and medicinal use of plants. “My students are interested in history, but they also wanted to engage with the present day community to overcome food access and insecurity,” she says.
So, in the fall of 2012, they launched a small farmers’ market on campus. There was a lot of support from students and faculty, but not the surrounding community as hoped. “The 38107 zip code around Rhodes is a food dessert,” explains Kimberly. The next year, they moved the market to the parking lot of Evergreen Church hoping it would be more accessible, but it still wasn’t measuring up.
In the spring of 2015, Kimberly was in Overton Park having an unrelated meeting about the old forest when the idea of moving the farmers’ market to the East Parkway pavilion came up. Susannah Barton, who is the Director of Development for the Overton Park Conservancy, thought it would be a great use of space and also help to draw in the community. “A farmers’ market would help activate all sides of the park, especially during the week,” she explains. “I love the idea of bringing people into the park to buy healthy food and then having them stay to play on the playground or hike the Old Forest. It was a perfect fit.”
Susannah managed a successful farmers’ market in Buffalo, NY before moving to Memphis. “I’m the person who thinks markets shouldn’t be on every corner. There needs to be a strong demand for vendors and producers,” she says.
In the fall of 2015 they had a full two-month season in the park and increased patronage and sales 300 to 400 percent. “The vendors were really excited,” notes Kimberly. The spring season started in April and they are already seeing an increase in participation.
The market is open every Thursday in April-October from 3:00–7:00 pm, rain or shine. They have 22 to 24 vendors per week. Of those, about 8 to 10 focus on vegetables, bread and prepared foods and there are also two meat vendors. “We have a great diversity of products and not a lot of overlap,” says Kimberly. “About 30 percent of our vendors also participate in the Cooper Young market, but most of them are from Bartlett and this is their only midtown stop.” Susannah adds that many of their vendors have also started stocking their goods at the Curb Market.
Students have been a part of the market since its inception. Each semester there are two Food Security Fellows. They conduct ethnographic studies at the market and in the surrounding communities, like Binghampton. “They try to understand what’s going on,” says Kimberly. “It’s a really great facet — learning about the community while being embedded in it.”
Susannah agrees, “They are at the market tracking sales, counting people, etc. They also attend advisory board meetings.”
“It’s great for them to see local food markets in action,” says Kimberly. “The 10 to 15 students who have rotated through the program have gone on to continue with local food movements in a variety of cities.”
In addition to involving students, Kimberly and Susannah wrote and received a grant from the USDA to implement some other programs. First of all, they initiated SNAP bags at the market in collaboration with Bring It Food Hub. SNAP/EBT recipients can get a produce membership that allows them to swipe their EBT card at the market and receive a bag of fresh produce each week. In addition, they get $10 extra dollars in “Fresh savings” tokens to spend at the market. The goal is to get 40 families participating in the program.
“There’s a perception that farmers’ markets are super expensive,” says Susannah. “We really want to open up the environment to be welcoming so people see that it’s accessible and that there are real opportunities to get great food at reasonable rates. It’s also really great for the vendors.”
While other farmers’ markets offer the “fresh savings,” Overton Park’s Community Farmers Market is the only one to offer the SNAP bags. [There’s an additional pick up location on Tuesdays at Caritas Village.]
The USDA grant also allows five farmers per season to receive $1,000 stipends to train community members in sustainable farming. They’ll be launching this program in June and implementing in the summer/fall season. “It will all be in town. They’ll plant and harvest themselves,” says Kimberly.
They also plan to use grant funds to create foodscape maps — one in the park, one in Cooper-Young, and one in VECA along the bike lane. “The maps will direct people to where food can be accessed,” explains Kimberly. “There will be also permanent, food related art installations around the maps.”
Additionally they will be partnering with the Cooper Young Farmers Market starting in June. They’ll share a marketing manager and have joint marketing and outreach efforts. They will also implement a streamlined application process for vendors. The long term goal is to collaborate on funding and grants, but to have the markets remain autonomous.
The best parts of for-profit business operations — collaboration, synergy, market analysis, consumer research, and business partner mentoring — are helping the market to evolve. It’s another example of progress in our ever-evolving food system.