The basic idea behind the Crescent City Farmers Market seems straightforward enough: create a venue where New Orleanians can buy fresh food directly from the people who harvested it from nearby fields and waters. After all, the long relationship between the city and the region's farmers and fishermen helped create the glory that is Creole cooking and cast New Orleans' reputation as a great culinary city.
But as the market celebrates its 15th birthday this autumn, market director Richard McCarthy recalls that some important perception issues had to be addressed early on.
"In the mid-90s when we established the Crescent City Farmers Market we were well aware that New Orleans had a reputation as a hub of violence," says McCarthy. "We were well aware that the state's political and economic discourse tended to pit urban versus rural, black versus white, suburban versus city center.
"Distrust had grown between urban and rural. So when we reached out to farmers and fishermen to come into the city center, they were, in short, terrified. They didn't trust that those of us in the city center would care about them, that they would be safe, or that there was a livelihood to be made here. And over time we were able to build trust with farmers and fishermen whose livelihoods have prospered as a result.
"So the market has become an incubator not only for business, but also for citizenship, for solidarity between urban and rural, as those of us in the urban center have learned just how vital those in the surrounding rural areas are."
Since that start in 1995, the Crescent City Farmers Market has evolved into three weekly markets held in different neighborhoods, with a combined economic impact of about seven million dollars a year. It now operates as part of a larger nonprofit called MarketUmbrella.org, a group providing research and advocacy to foster other markets of all types.
Often, that research is first put to the test at our local markets. For instance, just as some farmers were initially leery of the market concept, McCarthy says some potential shoppers in the city still believe a farmers market is a luxury for the well-heeled. To dismantle that notion, the market has developed a series of pioneering incentives for low-income seniors and for people using government assistance programs, including SNAP, the program still commonly called food stamps. The market periodically runs its MarketMatch incentive, which for a limited time doubles the money available to SNAP recipients when they shop at the three Crescent City Farmers Markets.
"We match them, we meet them halfway. If they spend $25 of their SNAP money, we'll spend $25 of our money that we've raised through private sources," he says. "This has helped to incentivize good behavior, good decisions, that families on very meager budgets are also able to enjoy not only the fresh bounty of the harvest but also enjoy the civic experience of shopping in an open-air market. By bringing them in through the incentive we widen the sense of solidarity in our community, and empathy between urban and rural folks who don't have these public spaces to get to know one another. The incentive lures shoppers there, the market experience keeps shoppers there."