A seat for everyone at the locavore table

By Madison standards, it is barely a farmers’ market. There are no cheese samples here, no fresh pastries or coffee, no artisan jams, no activists clutching petitions. At the South Madison Farmers’ Market, six vendors share a patch of grass bordering a strip mall. In front of them is South Park Street, clogged with rush-hour traffic.

This is not the Dane County Farmers’ Market, which draws tens of thousands of produce-lovers to Madison’s Capitol Square each weekend. But on South Park, there is plenty of free parking in the Villager Mall. On a recent afternoon, shoppers trickled onto the grass, chatting with vendors and filling tote bags with locally grown tomatoes, corn, onions and apples.

“This isn’t about tourism,” said Robert Pierce, 59, an organic farmer who manages this market and four others on Madison’s Southside. “This is about helping farmers and helping the community.”

In a city where it seems nearly everyone grows heirloom tomatoes, reads Michael Pollan and raises backyard chickens, it can be easy to forget that the locavore movement leaves some people behind. Ten years ago, there were no farmers’ markets in this part of Madison, which is home to the city’s poorest and most racially diverse neighborhoods. Now there are five markets here, thanks largely to Pierce, who shuttles between his farm in McFarland and the markets he manages on South Park Street, Rimrock Road and Gilbert Road.

“There’s an assumption that only the rich can afford fresh, organic food,” Pierce said. “We need to bring affordable, nutritious food to this part of town.”

Pierce joined the market on South Park Street as a vendor in 2001, its inaugural year, and became manager in 2003. The market was founded, Pierce said, out of a concern that low-income families on Madison’s Southside were not using their federally funded food vouchers at farmers’ markets.

The Villager Mall location was chosen, he said, because it shares a parking lot with a Women, Infants and Children (W.I.C.) program office. W.I.C. is a federal initiative that provides food vouchers to low-income mothers and children.

“A lot of people come out of the W.I.C. office and head right to the farmers’ market,” Pierce said. “We’re lucky that way.”

He estimates that 50 to 75 percent of his customers pay for produce with W.I.C. vouchers.

Research suggests that low-income consumers who shop at farmers’ markets are more likely to consume fruits and vegetables. A 2008 study conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles tracked the eating habits of 602 local women. Some women received $10 vouchers to farmers’ markets, while others received $10 vouchers to supermarkets. After six months, women who shopped at the farmers’ markets were consuming about three additional servings of fruits and vegetables a day, versus the supermarket group, who were eating 1.5 additional servings daily.

The study did not collect data about why the farmers’ market shoppers ate more fruit and vegetables. The researchers did note, however, that the farmers’ market shoppers said they enjoyed interacting with farmers and the “pleasant community experience” of the market.

On a recent Thursday afternoon at the market on South Park Street, shoppers crowded around Pierce’s red tent, admiring his neatly arrayed tomatoes, corn, watermelons and pears. Pierce greeted shoppers by name and fielded their questions: What should I do with my tomato plants this fall? Is it okay to freeze turnip greens? Do you have any good okra recipes?

As Pierce doled out advice, he weighed and bagged produce, encouraging children to take a free pear.

That weekend, he would take a break from the market to lead a farming workshop for high school students and help build a hoophouse at a school on the Southside.

“He cares about people and his produce,” said Aly Miller, 21, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Miller interned with Pierce last fall and helped him create publicity for the South Madison Farmers’ Markets. In June she received a grant to develop a program that provides farmers’ market produce to the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County and Quaker Housing Inc., an apartment complex for the low-income elderly.

Miller said that the idea for her project was inspired, in part, by working with Pierce.

“He’s passionate about helping people,” she said. “And he’s completely committed to bringing fresh, healthy food to this neighborhood.”

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