Richmond officials hope to re-energize the city's oldest farmers market this spring by offering a bigger selection of Virginia-raised meat and poultry, enlisting teenagers to grow and sell vegetables and recruiting new partners who will provide nutrition advice and exercise classes.
The 17th Street Farmers' Market, which opens for the season on May 7, was once the only such market in Central Virginia. Now, more than 20 neighborhood markets operate on Saturdays within a 30-mile radius of the Shockoe Bottom site, says George Bolos, market manager. "We're seeing new interest and attracting new vendors, particularly from the Shenandoah Valley," he says.
Last year, the market drew more than 60 vendors on days when festivals were held, and about 20 on days without special events, Bolos says. Just five years ago, regular market days attracted 45 to 55 vendors to the covered, open-air structure built in the mid-1980s.
David Napier, president of the Shockoe Bottom Neighborhood Association, views Bolos' efforts as instrumental "in keeping [the 17th Street market] from dying altogether." Napier, who owns White House Catering and the Old City Bar, says that as growers have left for other farmers markets, Saturdays at the 17th Street market have turned into "more flea market than fresh market. You can only buy so many seashells." He says his group has encouraged the city to revitalize the market for years because Shockoe Bottom "has the most potential of any area to add to the city coffers."
Richmond officials also approached the VCU Massey Cancer Center about getting involved. The Massey Alliance Board, a junior board under the Massey Cancer Center Advisory Board with about 30 people in their 20s to 40s, embraced the invitation. Alliance members will be at the market every Saturday to provide the community with information about healthier nutrition to prevent cancer. "We want to use the farmers market to educate people," says Jane Ferrara, deputy director and chief operating officer of Richmond's Department of Economic and Community Development. "The farmers market is a wonderful conduit for ideas."
That's good, counters Napier, "but we need people to come down and buy stuff."
Alliance president Matt Anderson says the opportunity will allow his group to branch out from fundraising and make more personal contacts with the community. Member Michelle Logan sees an additional way to get involved. She owns Richmond Balance, a gym located one block from the market. Her staff will lead free, outdoor community fitness sessions Saturday mornings at the market.
Like other members of the Alliance, Logan's life has been touched by cancer. Her mother survived breast cancer.
"Diet and exercise, research has shown, decrease the incidence of cancer, so we want to encourage healthy and active people," Logan says. But the benefits go well beyond cancer prevention, she adds. "Healthy lifestyles reduce the incidence of diabetes and improve heart health. The more people know and learn about the food industry, the more they'll want better food and higher quality food." Getting that message to children is especially important, Logan says: "If we get people at a young age eating fresh produce, they'll want the same quality food as they grow up."
Toward that goal, Bolos explains that the office for the open-air market, in the adjacent Main Street Station, was used as a winter hot house for starting plants from seeds. Teens in the Mayor's Youth Academy will move the seedlings to quarter-acre gardens on 17th and 31st streets, and the mature plants will be picked fresh and sold by participating youth at the market.
He points out that with higher fuel prices and the cost of transporting food to markets, locally grown food makes more sense for financial reasons, and because of flavor and freshness. "So much of our food today is not grown for taste anymore," he says. "It's grown for longevity." That may explain the appeal of food grown closer to home.
This year the market will have free-range pork from the Shenandoah Valley, Bolos says. "We plan to expand our meat and poultry offerings. More than 8,500 people work and live in Shockoe Bottom. They want an alternative to shop and buy goods."