Looking to address ‘inequities’ with farmers markets, Pittsburgh eyes a study of its own

“We can definitely do a better job,” one official said, “but what that looks like has yet to be seen.”

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Update: Following publication of this article, City Council voted 7-2 to fund the farmers market study, which will be undertaken by the Farmers Market Coalition, a national nonprofit.    

In an effort to broaden the reach of city-run farmers markets and elevate their role in the local food chain, Pittsburgh officials have been asked to fund a study of the entire system, a system some worry isn’t reaching as many as it should and which is failing to punctuate persistent food deserts where they exist.

Funding the study requires Pittsburgh City Council’s approval. A resolution authorizing the expenditure — one not to exceed $46,000 — was introduced Tuesday and is scheduled to be discussed at Wednesday’s standing committee meeting.

If approved, the resolution would allow the city to hire an outside firm to perform “a comprehensive analysis of Pittsburgh’s farmers market system.” That system comprises eight city-run markets in total and does not include Pittsburgh’s independently run markets, of which there are more than a dozen.

“We need to see if the city is the best one to run the markets and whether we should be managing them at all,” Shelly Danko+Day, an urban agriculture and food policy adviser with the Department of City Planning, told The Incline Tuesday. And while an end to city control of the markets may be unlikely, Danko+Day said there are other areas where proposed changes could be more easily adopted.

“Our farmers markets haven’t been taken as seriously as a method of food supply,” she said. “And so we need to look at it with a real open mind and a critical eye and think, ‘What’s happening and what can we do to improve it?’”

For starters, bridging the gap requires consistency in scheduling and location, but also a wider and more deliberate footprint, a wider and more targeted marketing campaign and better word of mouth, she explained. It also requires using nimble farmers markets to serve more of the population in parts of the city often overlooked by brick-and-mortar grocery chains and free-market forces.

“There’s an imbalance with underserved areas,” Danko+Day said, and these areas “are pretty widespread throughout the city.”

The study being considered by council would hopefully begin to address that, she added, through an analysis of the holes in the current system but also through the development of a plan to reach more residents — whether through marketing, changes to how the system is managed or a combination of the two. (There exists a number of other possibilities as well.)

The study would also look at considerations like transportation in selecting market locations and best practices employed in other cities. This includes Philadelphia, where The Food Trust group says it worked to push the city’s markets further into underserved communities and make Philadelphia “a national leader in accepting SNAP [food stamps] at its farmers markets.” The Food Trust also began using wireless card reader machines at its markets in 2004.

Pittsburgh’s farmers markets have also added food stamp access, a move lauded by Danko+Day and participating farmers both here and in similar markets across the country.

But obstacles remain, a boat that Pittsburgh is far from alone in as cities across the U.S. grapple with how best to direct healthy food options to those most often isolated from them. (Note: This is not just an urban phenomenon.)

In some cases the response has meant the rise of mobile markets. In others, it’s meant vouchers, bringing non-traditional vendors into the fold or keeping markets open year-round.

In Pittsburgh, city-run markets are open from spring to late summer or early fall in the following neighborhoods and locations: Squirrel Hill, Beechview, East Liberty, South Side, Carrick, North Side and Mellon Square, Downtown. There is also a once-monthly market in Sheraden.

But Danko+Day said despite the many successes of the city-run system, there is a sense that more could be done. She cites general consumer complaints involving the locations and start times of markets as proof. Convenience, as with any other business venture, remains key to getting customers on board. Convincing them of the merits of the product is also crucial.

Other complaints have involved the variety of farmers and products, or occasional lack thereof. And the farmers themselves have argued that overlaps in the market schedule can mean having to choose between multiple events instead of attending more than one.

“Pittsburgh is the biggest market for farmers in western Pennsylvania and we have a responsibility, or the city has a responsibility, I feel, to make sure that we support our farmers so they continue to feed us,” Danko+Day said.

Meanwhile, the short-term goals for Pittsburgh’s city-run markets begin with making more people aware of when and where they exist.

“We have moved markets in the past and haven’t necessarily been great at conveying that,” Danko+Day admitted. “We haven’t necessarily been great at marketing our markets.”

She cited the Mellon Square market as an example, saying, “even city employees were surprised to know that market was there.”

“We can definitely do a better job,” she added, “but what that looks like has yet to be seen.”

That, she said, is where the study would come in, should council choose to support it.

As for the mayor, Danko+Day said Bill Peduto, who in 2015 signed the city up for the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, is “definitely supportive of finding solutions to these problems and the problem of equity” citywide.