In part one of our Local Food How To series, we explored food options that involve pre-ordering food in bulk on a weekly, monthly or seasonal basis. In part two, we look at farmers’ markets and cooperatives, two options with physical locations for those that enjoy the act of selecting their food and building relationships with their food providers.
For the small farmer – 10 acres or less, more for fruit farmers – it is most profitable to go to a market and sell directly, according to Greensgrow Farm’s Geoff Bucknum.
Geoff cited Ben Wenk’s Three Springs Fruit Farm as an example: “He has managed to build a very big direct sales program. He’s gone from having produce to sell to Greensgrow for our CSA to not, and that’s great for him. If the farmer has the infrastructure and the marketing, that’s going to be the biggest profit margin.”
However, calculating supply and demand can be tricky, explained Bob Pierson, Farm to City founder and Director. “Farmers basically have to overplant,” he said. “They have to support themselves and staff for their time. They have to pay for fuel, which is the same for the CSA, but the farmers going to market have a guessing game as to how much people will buy.”
But one benefit of markets is that the farmers can set prices to meet demand, meaning that busy markets in high-rent neighborhoods such as Rittenhouse will translate to more expensive produce.
Many customers are willing to pay that premium for the opportunity to hand-select their produce. “I like hunting down my own food, going to market and picking my own,” Bucknum said. And there’s the added benefit of speaking directly to the grower or his/her employees, cultivating relationships and eliminating any question about how and where the food is grown.
Plus, many farmers markets are now accepting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits from low-income individuals and families. The Double Dollars program, offered only at the Reading Terminal Market’s Fair Food Farmstand, offers an extra $5 worth of produce for $5 spent with the EBT card (up to $10 in coupons per week). The Food Trust offers a similar program: For each $5 in SNAP benefits spent at participating markets, customers receive $2 in Philly Food Bucks toward more fresh fruits and vegetables. Many Philadelphia farmers markets also accept Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) vouchers, issued to seniors and WIC beneficiaries.
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“There is a lot of access for fresh local food for people; it’s not something for yuppies or whatever gross word you want to put on it,” Bucknum said. “Mainly I think there’s a lot of communication and education that needs to happen.”
Cooperative grocery stores are on the rise in the Philadelphia area, though the definition of a co-op has broadened to meet modern expectations. Historically, most co-ops were defined as brick-and-mortar grocery stores, run by volunteers and dedicated to healthy, sustainable foods. Today, though many co-ops still do their best to feature local, natural and organic products, they also stock conventional items as well. Work requirements, long a staple of the co-op model, are vanishing along with the strict adherence to sustainability principles.
Marc BrownGold, general manager of Swarthmore Co-Op, said that “it’s a sign of the times. People are busy, you have two-income families. For those co-ops that are small, old-style and committed to driving down price, that volunteer work is very important. You save a ton on labor and that helps to drive your prices down.” But for Swarthmore, CreekSide and a growing number of other co-ops, patrons would rather pay a little extra to avoid the volunteer requirement.
Though the newer co-op models may not appeal to the local food purist, BrownGold added, the level of convenience makes membership attractive to many.
“I think probably if you’re comparing [co-ops] to CSAs and farmers markets,” BrownGold said, “our prices are comparable. We’re almost like a farmers market except the advantage is that we have stuff seven days a week. And because we can make great agreements with our farmers and our producers, they’ll end up giving us a great price and we try to pass that along to the consumer.”
Ashlynn Sylvain, who is both a Food For All Collective member and CreekSide Co-Op employee, agrees. Though she orders from TFFAC monthly and shops weekly at Whole Foods Market and Essene, she said, “CreekSide is definitely the cheapest.” And although CreekSide carries brands like Coca-Cola and Campbell’s, the still-new market is offering more and more local products.
“I’d say probably more than half of our baked goods are local,” she said, “and right now we’ve got maybe a dozen local produce products. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s more than we’ve ever been able to do in the past.”
The farmers also benefit from the stability of the co-ops, explained BrownGold.“If a farmer has 30 cases of blueberries that he got stuck with, he can call my produce market and say ‘Hey, I’m trying to get rid of these, will you take 10 cases at X price.’ As a co-op we’re in a position to make those decisions.”
“We’re committed to giving the farmer a fair price for our products. A large box store is trying to squeeze the farmer; we’re not doing that,” he added.
(Photo via Flickr user Tom Ipri)-30-
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