Nineteen-year-old Richard Stewart isn’t sleeping in on a Saturday morning. He’s busy prepping for his neighborhood’s weekly farmers market.
Before the market opens, he’s handing out flyers in the community, talking with residents and encouraging them to come. At the market, Stewart helps vendors with setting up tables or carrying boxes of produce. If an event is taking place that day, he might be putting up tents, posting signs, and welcoming guests. Often, Stewart staffs one of the stands selling fresh tomatoes, zucchini, and other produce.
Stewart is a lifelong resident of Parramore, a historically African American neighborhood in Orlando, Florida, where residents trek 3 miles to find the closest grocery store. Because the community’s 6,000 residents lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables, the neighborhood was labeled a food desert in a University of Central Florida study.
In Parramore, Orlando’s highest-poverty neighborhood, the median household income is just $15,493, compared to $42,418 in Orlando. The unemployment rate hovers around 23 percent. And according to a survey published in Orlando Sentinel, “more than 85 percent of the families had run out of money for bills or food before the end of the month.” In 2015, the city council approved a revitalization plan to transform Parramore, in part focusing on promoting access to healthy food.
That’s why last year the city of Orlando (largely through its Green Works Orlando sustainability program) kicked off Parramore Farmers Market in an area just outside Orlando City Stadium, owing to grants from the USDA Farmers Market Promotion Program and Orlando Health hospital. The problem? Despite the need for fresh produce in Parramore, the market came to an abrupt halt midsummer due to the intense Florida heat and lack of covered spaces outside the soccer stadium. Plus, it lacked adequate parking.
Summer crops are limited due to the intense subtropical Florida heat. With the state’s soaring summer temperatures and slow growing season, the market went on hiatus. It not only needed cooler weather and some shade; it needed a total reboot.
“We listened to the community and their needs,” explained Jemmy Barrera, the market’s newly hired coordinator. “Now there’s a lot more room for us to grow and to give the community more of what they might like.”
Based on community feedback, the Parramore Farmers Market got a makeover. For starters, it moved across the street to the spacious (and shaded) parking lot of the Orange County Health Department, with ample free parking and plenty of picnic tables. Held every Saturday morning—now year-round, thanks to plentiful oak trees—the market provides Parramore with sorely needed access to local, fresh produce.
But what makes the Parramore Farmers Market unique is that it’s a neighborhood farmers market run by youths. It taps several teens, including Stewart, from Parramore Kidz Zone, a program launched by Mayor Buddy Dyer in 2006 and sponsored by the city of Orlando. In order to decrease Parramore’s juvenile crime, teen births, and high school dropout rates, Kidz Zone is investing in “cradle to career” initiatives: quality early-childhood education, after-school programs, health and wellness programs, youth development programs for teenagers, mentoring, and college-access assistance.
And it’s working. From 2006 to 2015, juvenile arrests in Parramore dropped 61 percent and teen births declined 56 percent, according to a 2016 Florida Health Care Coalition evaluation report. And a case study conducted by Center for Promise shows, among other improvements, that “the graduation rate at Jones High School (where roughly half of Parramore youth attend) has increased by 26 percentage points since the early years of [Kidz Zone].”
Kidz Zone invests in a variety of efforts aimed at younger kids, but it also offers youth development programs for teens and includes a curriculum that teaches business skills such as marketing and budgeting.
“They’re learning everything from time management to the logistics of running a farmers market to how to make a profit,” said Barrera, noting that the relaunched market is only a month old. “As the farmers market succeeds, and with more training and workshops, the students can expand on what they’ve learned and get more creative.”
The students are also navigating the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, and how customers can now buy fresh foods at the market using those benefits. Florida offers Fresh Access Bucks for SNAP-eligible individuals, allowing shoppers to buy twice as many fruits and vegetables because the market doubles their purchasing power.
During market hours, the teens sell produce, handle money, track inventory, talk with customers, manage vendor relations, and troubleshoot problems. Beyond the market’s operating hours, they handle vendor recruiting, marketing, and community outreach.
While that’s a lot of responsibility for the teens, running the market is the easiest part, said Richard Stewart, now a Valencia College student majoring in sound and music production.
“My son puts a lot of energy into his work,” said his mom, Tiffany. “I see him making more of himself by doing this work. He’s been making videos [his passion] and is more involved in the community.”
Stewart enjoys seeing new faces at the market and loves its friendly vibe, he said, although the challenges are getting people to show up at the market.
Reginald Burroughs, Orlando’s youth employment coordinator for Families, Parks and Recreation, echoed Stewart’s sentiment, acknowledging that the market’s biggest struggle is getting community residents to attend the market consistently. “We’re working to educate and change the mindset of a community that has been living in a food desert for a while,” Burroughs noted. “It’s no secret that habits are hard to break.”
While building a solid customer and vendor base takes time, the market does boast a special relationship with one vendor, Black Bee Honey. Run by 30 students from Kidz Zone, the nonprofit startup business was featured on Steve Harvey’s TV show last year. Besides selling honey at the farmers market, Black Bee partners with local restaurants and sells its products online as well.
What’s the future of Parramore Farmers Market? To become a one-stop shop for the community. With the expanded outdoor space and access to indoor space at the Department of Health, Barrera aims to have food trucks, cooking classes, and educational workshops. Plus, the collaborative effort allows for health care services such as mammograms, HIV testing, and immunizations.
“Our goal is to get the community involved in market—not just get produce, but get resources,” Burroughs said.
Barrera hopes the market affords opportunities to people who might not be able to sell their goods in other markets, and wants to work with partners outside of Parramore. Explained Barrera, “We’re dreaming big with this.”
Teaser photo credit: Photo by Itziar Alo