The 501c3 nonprofit corporation, marketumbrella.org, is devoted to cultivating the field of public markets for public good. With seventeen-years of experience establishing and managing farmers markets as flagship institutions with positive economic, social, and nutritional impacts in the Greater New Orleans region, we also catalogue and share the innovations that we and others deploy to improve the effectiveness of these recently revived — yet ancient — institutions for social justice ends. In 1995 when we began our work based on experiences in the urban agriculture, environmental justice, labor and racial equity movements, the food system in the region was unhealthy and weak. Fishing and farming families were trapped in a domestic industrial grid providing them with little access to the consumers who reward fresh, healthy and local offerings. In short, the local food system resided in a place that stood halfway between a moribund past and a future dream.
While this could also aptly describe the status of other local food systems in North America, the situation in New Orleans is significantly unique in that the heritage of a distinct regional cuisine provides us with ample content around which to organize (and most importantly to bridge new relations between groups who possess limited trust about one another). Additionally, the legacy and ongoing presence of persistent poverty provides public health advocates with an almost ideal laboratory in which to operate. Once the violent effects of natural and industrial disasters are thrown into the mix, farmers markets have more than emblematic value. Rather, they and other alternative food efforts begin to play a leading role “growing a new world within the shell of an old.”
Indeed, this is our local legacy. We have grown the Crescent City Farmers Market from a weekly setting for a dozen farmers to sell the fruits of their labor in 1995 attracting 800 shoppers into four farmers markets for 75 food producing families from three states serving 150,000 shopper visits per year with an annual economic impact of $11.6 million. In this public setting, farmers diversify their livelihoods by selling wholesale to restaurants, alternative retail, and school service providers (who purchase at Market). For the local food system, we are the stable, public, weekly entity that brings producer together with consumer, providing the social space to dream bigger dreams.
What are these bigger dreams? Without our technical help, the 50 new farmers markets from Alabama to Texas would not be there to initiate their own local food conversations. This speaks to the roles we play learning, sharing, and growing together with a movement that remains in its infancy.
Locally, we are known as public market operators who often share best practices and the best producers. Regionally, we convene market operators, agricultural and public health advocates to support and replicate best practices. Nationally and internationally, we provide critical analysis to a fledgling field as reflective practitioners.
Each of these roles – that often compete for time and limited resources from a small staff – have been carved into the organization’s path without a predetermined business plan. Straddling a variety of sectors – public health, economic development, social and environmental justice – provides us with marvelous perspective but uncertain financial footing. With a modest endowment at the community foundation, a steady stream of earned income from vendors’ rents, we not only wish to expand our role field-testing market innovation for direct impact and replication but continue to seek programmatic and capacity building assistance to institutionalize them.