Which Comes First? The Chicken or the Egg? Supply or Demand?

September 28, 2011

By Mary Seton Corboy and Matthew Brener, Greensgrow Farm
with Alison Hastings, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission

Part 2
Picking up where we left off on Monday, we learned that Greensgrow Farm built an innovative mobile farmers market in Camden, but…

Now that fresh, affordable, (and local!) food is available practically at residents’ doorsteps, Greensgrow’s mobile farmers market would be flooded with customers. Right?

No. Sales are slow.

You see… It’s a dormant market. Greensgrow is finding that demand has to be developed – even in food deserts. Addressing the supply side of the equation is not enough. Under-served neighborhoods, their residents, and would-be customers need to be nurtured and retained… and it’s going to take time, money and commitment to make it happen.

Nutritional education and cooking classes, starting with children, which is proven to reach parents will become keys to increasing demand for healthy, fresh food in low income markets. Thanks to partners on the ground, efforts are underway in Camden. However, demand for these foods has not yet developed. This predicament possibly provides an answer to why the “free market” has not responded to the needs of food deserts.

Greensgrow has already experimented with selling healthy, fresh, locally growing food to lower-income customers. In 2010 and 2011, Greensgrow has operated a Community Supported Agriculture program in Philadelphia, providing the same high quality food items to lower-income customers as to middle and upper-income customers who pay upwards of $435 at the beginning of the growing season. The Local Initiative for Food Education (LIFE) CSA Program has been made possible through business financing (i.e. short-term loans) from TRF. TRF is a leader in Fresh Food Financing – creating financial packages and incentives to bring new or improve existing food stores in under-served areas.

When Greensgrow asked TRF for advice on increasing food access, one staff member at TRF said that low-income customers “don’t like to shop where “poor” people shop.” A market that serves low-income customers is a market like any other except money is tighter, customers are more constrained by their resources, and they (arguably) have greater expectations for what they get with their hard earned money.

Greensgrow has come to believe that to succeed in solving Camden’s food desert problem, “price performance” is everything: the prices must be right; the quality must be good; and the customer service must be excellent.

Regardless of nonprofit or for-profit, big box store or mom-and-pop grocer, the community must come to trust the vendor as someone who is not just there to “take the money and run.” The vendors must learn the ways of the community – what market hours work; when are paydays; when are Feast Days. The grocer-farmer-entrepreneur-vendor plays a small, but very important part in creating a healthier and more equitable food system for all.

So what does this all of mean for the Greensgrow Camden Neighborhood Markets? This year, four stops. Next year, eight.

Images: (top) Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation; (middle) M. van Ogtrop for Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation; (bottom) Greensgrow

The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission and their partners are regular contributors to the Dodge blog on issues of food policy and regional food systems.