Arts & Entertainment, Food Service & Agriculture, and Sustainability

YMCA Farmers Market fills a need

August 19, 2012
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As locally produced fruits and vegetables have become more important to the region’s economy, the places consumers can buy those products have multiplied.

Across West Michigan there are dozens of markets that sell farm- and orchard-fresh goods every week during the summer and fall seasons, and at least eight are in Grand Rapids.

The granddaddy of those, of course, is the Fulton Street Farmers Market at 1147 E. Fulton St. The city’s oldest and largest farmers market is open May through Christmas. It made its usual debut this past spring in its longtime, but newly renovated, home and is now more consumer and seller friendly.

But even though other markets aren’t as large or open as many days each week or as many months as Fulton Street’s, they also have developed a dedicated following in the neighborhoods they serve. One such market is just a few blocks west of downtown, and is operated by the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids.

In its second year of operation, the David D. Hunting YMCA Farmers Market sets up each Thursday from 3-7 p.m. at 475 Lake Michigan Drive NW from June through September. The market actually operates in the parking lot on Winter Avenue, across from Ferris Coffee and Nut and just behind the YMCA building.

“Year one proved to be a very good one for the YMCA Farmers Market. We recruited 18 vendors to participate in the market, which was the maximum that the space allowed. Unfortunately, we had more vendors interested than our space allowed,” said Nicole Hansen, who directs the Y’s healthy living effort.

A few of the participating vendors were Goen’s Produce and The Great Bread Co., both of Allendale; Grassfield Cheese in Coopersville; Health Pantry Bars of Grand Rapids; and Hudsonville Honey and Meza Farm, both of Hudsonville.

“The objectives included improving food access to Grand Rapids’ underserved communities, to promote the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables from local farms, plus foster job creation and increase the economic vitality of local farmers in West Michigan by establishing a new urban farmers market,” said Hansen.

Sara Vander Zanden, the market’s manager, said the Y began its second year with nine vendors but that group quickly grew to 14 — a number with which the organization feels comfortable. “We have been and continue to be very deliberate about the rate of the market’s growth,” she said. “We are conscious of the delicate balance between having enough vendors and variety to satisfy customers and not having so many vendors that none of them are profitable.”

Vander Zanden also said the Y was able to launch its second season with a big assist through marketing grants from the Allen Foundation and the Michigan Economic Development Corp. Those grants led to a billboard ad, ads on city buses, and door-to-door distribution throughout the neighborhood of coupons worth $4 toward purchases. “We have seen a significant increase in foot traffic at the market,” she said.

Vander Zanden said the location was chosen because hundreds of people were already going to the Y on a regular basis so the nonprofit organization felt it had the traffic to establish a customer base. In addition, Vander Zanden said the market’s vendors appreciated the convenience of the site, which allowed them to park their trucks directly behind their stalls and eliminated the necessity for unloading their vehicles.

Like the Fulton Street Market did in 2009, the Y’s market also decided to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program last year and bought a wireless point-of-sale terminal that accepts SNAP benefits, along with credit and debit cards. SNAP customers buy wooden tokens and use them to make their purchases. Vendors then turn their tokens in at the end of the day and the Y issues them checks every other week.

“In addition to accepting SNAP benefits at the market, we were accepted to participate in the Double-Up Food Bucks Program. This program is administered through the Fair Food Network, and uses private funding for an incentive program aimed at SNAP recipients to increase SNAP sales at local farmers markets and increase consumption of fresh produce,” said Vander Zanden.

“When a customer used SNAP benefits at our farmers market, they received a match for what they spent, up to $20 each market day to spend on Michigan-grown fresh fruits and vegetables at the market,” she added. “The main goal of the project was to expand the local economy,”

A survey conducted last year by the Y found that 55 percent of the market’s customers spent from $1 to $10 on each visit, while 33.5 percent spent from $11 to $20, and 13.5 percent spent from $31 to $50. Vander Zanden said about 50,000 consumers were able to access more farm-fresh produce during the market’s season; more than 500 SNAP purchases were made last year.

But Vander Zanden also pointed out that buyers get more out of the market than the food they bought. “They took away more than a bagful of groceries. They took away a farmer’s story,” she said. “The market is touching people’s lives. The farmers market is the best thing happening on the west side.”

For a list and more information on farmers markets in Grand Rapids and across West Michigan, go to foodshed.net/farmersmarkets.html.

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