Food can bring us together. This much I know. But in our neighborhood and many others like it, there’s an inexcusable divide that needs to be bridged.
In the North Highland district near our home, 12,000 residents live in one square mile (compared to an average of 860 in the rest of the city). The percentage of folks below the poverty level is 61%; it’s 16% elsewhere in Georgia. For those without transportation, the closest thing to a grocery store is a gas station selling fried chicken, chips and candy.
That’s about to change.
After last year’s orchard planting, Brad and I wanted to do more. Fruit trees were a great start, but they weren’t going to make a significant dent in our community’s hunger. Not right away, at least. We had to find a way to regularly get healthy, local food on the plates of our neighbors.
A farmers market seemed the next logical step.
We scouted sites around the city – rec centers, the bus transfer station, abandoned lots – but every place had its drawbacks.
Our jaws dropped when Brad and I saw what this place was accomplishing just across the street from the orchard. They treated 17,000 patients last year, 90% of whom were uninsured or underinsured. They offer primary care and pediatrics, bring in specialists on a rotating schedule, and have even created a space for dentistry.
MercyMed fills their clinic walls with works from renowned artists to give beauty and dignity to the experience of going to the doctor. And they had just planted a garden to teach their patients with chronic diseases that good nutrition was the key to good health.
It was love at first sight.
But that’s not all. Wholesome Wave Georgia gave a presentation that evening about their Georgia Fresh For Less (GF4L) program which offers double dollars to folks on SNAP (what used to be called food stamps). So if a customer wants $20 worth of vegetables, their EBT card is only swiped for $10, but grant money pays the farmers the full amount.
The next day I called a friend at UGA Extension to tell her I wanted to manage a double SNAP farmers market at the clinic, and she quickly organized a meeting. It was kismet because a couple of local farms who were part of Food Oasis wanted to provide produce to MercyMed.
While working on the grant request, our group decided to do two pop-up markets in November to work out logistics. A lot of curious people came to the markets, many of whom couldn’t buy anything. But they still took home free sweet potatoes and herbs from UGA Extension and the Columbus Botanical Garden. Others who had never cooked with butternut squash were intrigued by samples of soup and roasted cubes whipped up in MercyMed’s kitchen. All of the farmers with butternuts sold out, proving that everyone enjoys healthy food when it’s made quick and inviting.
My heart broke into a thousand pieces when a woman came to my table, eyed a head of lettuce and said, “Oh, I love lettuce, but I never get it.” She physically slumped after seeing the $3 price tag, but her husband pulled out a few wrinkled bills from his pocket and told her to get it for herself. As I handed her the greens, I offered tips on how to keep them fresh for several days, while silently praying that the lettuce would bring her joy and nourishment.
I wept after returning home that night, embarrassed at the bounty of food in our refrigerator, including two bags of untouched lettuce I had just given away, and vowed to find a way to put fresh vegetables on that couple’s table every night.
Later that month, Georgia Organics awarded our group a grant that would cover all of our start-up expenses, Wholesome Wave Georgia made us one of their partner GF4L markets, and the Georgia Farmers Market Association gave us a nutrition education grant.
We’ve joined forces with UGA Extension’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) to offer cooking classes during the markets, and our friends at Feeding the Valley food bank and the United Way 211 director are coming to talk about resources available in Columbus.
The first North Highland Farmers Market happens this Wednesday, June 6 from 4-6 p.m. in the MercyMed parking lot on 2nd Avenue, and the day feels full of promise. The market is open to the public and on a main thoroughfare, so we’re hoping some of the thousands of downtown workers will stop by on their way home, in addition to the locals.
Columbus has a big Saturday market, and by adding an accessible mid-week venue, we’re hoping to change the way people think about farmers markets. Not as supplemental, but, rather, as essential. Places where nearly all the staples can be affordably found — veggies, fruit, cereal, meat, yogurt, eggs and cheese. Most of us make a mid-week run for food, but instead of giving that money to a faceless corporation headquartered elsewhere, now it’s possible to support local, small businesses while spending time with neighbors and farmers.
Like I said, food really can bring us together.
4 to 6 pm
1st and 3rd Wednesdays (except 4th of July: Tuesday, July 3 instead)
June through November 2018
Parking lot behind MercyMed of Columbus, 3702 2nd Avenue, Columbus, GA 31904
For more information:
Follow the North Highland Farmers Market on Instagram.