Non-profit Serves Both Consumers and Farmers

Jan 25, 2019  | 6 min  | Ep4423

According to USDA, food insecurity is defined as having limited access to a variety of quality, desirable foods. In the U.S., 1-in-8 share this condition.

SNAP dollars help solve the problem but sometimes the selection remains limited. Many communities have programs to bridge the gap but one group of farmers has found a way to provide a variety of foods that fill empty plates.

Peter Tubbs has more in our Cover Story. Producer contact

The majority of the vendors and customers at this farmer’s market lack access to different things. Shoppers, mostly residents of central Milwaukee, lack access to fresh produce in general and crops from their home countries, specifically. Many of the vendors, who grow what they sell, struggle to find enough land to be profitable. The Fondy Food Center attempts to fill the gap for both farmer and customer.
Jennifer Casey, Executive Director, Fondy Food Center: “Our nonprofit was started because of the important role that this market plays in food security in the neighborhood. 53206 is an economically challenged neighborhood. There's a lot of food insecurity.”
Central Milwaukee has a population of 130,000 residents and some of the highest poverty rates in the United States. Even as nearby neighborhoods closer to downtown revitalize, jobs and retail are slow to move back into the minority neighborhoods nearby. The result is a community structure that relies on bodegas and food marts rather than full-service supermarkets. The smaller stores stock few perishable fruits and vegetables, and search for profit in shelf-stable calorie dense foods.
Sister MacCanon Brown, MacCanon Brown Homeless Sanctuary: “It's just so limited. No, hardly any produce. Often the prices are hiked way up and there's just not a lot of real food. A lot of it is chips.”
But this location on Fond Du Lac in Central Milwaukee has been home to a Farmer’s Market for over a century. Under management of the non-profit Fondy Food Center since 2000, the market is open four days per week in the summer and one day per month in the winter.
A recent innovation has helped the finances of both customers and vendors at the market. Fondy Food Center staff help customers convert SNAP benefit dollars into tokens that vendors accept for purchases. Vendors exchange the tokens for cash at the end of the marketing day. In 2017, Fondy Food Center processed $72,000 dollars in SNAP benefits at the market. The average farmer’s market in Wisconsin that accepts SNAP benefits processes only $4600 in benefits annually.
The high volume of SNAP benefits belies the common perception that the poor are not interested in purchasing healthy food. The highest hurdle for SNAP households purchasing fresh produce at farmer’s markets is the knowledge that the option is even available.
Another benefit for vendors at the Fondy Farmer’s Market is being delivered from a location 12 miles to the north in the suburb of Mequon.
Chue Vanglor picks squash on the one acre plot he rents from Fondy Farms. The farm sits on a corner of the 444 acre Mequon Nature Preserve in southern Ozaukee County.
Vanglor emigrated from Laos in 1985, and has been farming since 1991, but access to land has always been the tallest barrier to increased production. The one acre he rents from Fondy Farms provides predictability to his season, as he can focus on his crops rather than finding another farm to rent next year.
The mostly immigrant customers at Fondy Market have encouraged farmers like Chue to plant crops from their homelands, sometimes with seeds carried to the U.S. by family.
Chue Vanglor, Farmer: “I grow here, I have here some hot pepper, and a bitterball, eggplant, and pumpkin, and some bean. Yeah.”
Jennifer Casey, Fondy Food Center: “Back in 2007, 2008, 2009, we had a number of farmers drop out of the market and that was a problem because we needed to ensure the supply of fresh produce to the neighborhood. When we began talking to the farmers about why they were dropping out of the market, we realized that very consistently, it wasn't because they wanted to stop farming and they're ready to retire. It's that they did not have access to land. They were relying on handshake leases, and it was quite expensive for them to continue their operations. We started with 20 acres, but we had farmers apply for more than 100. So the demand vastly outstrips the supply.”
Twenty-four farmers work plots that are 90 by 500 feet. The one acre canvas is planted in whatever crops they feel they can sell. Many of the crops drive high prices due to scarcity in the local food system. Bitterball - a form of eggplant popular in Caribbean cooking - sells for $5 per pound. Specific peppers can yield as much as $30 per bushel.   
Stephen Petro, Manager, Fondy Farms: “The farmers that we're working with are just really, I think like a lot of farmers around the world, they're, they're just being really responsive to the communities that they're serving. Um, and something that is really unique here is that, that, that is really diverse. You know, where are, we only have farmers out here are just growing, you know, tomatoes, eggplant and cucumbers, you know, they're growing 50, 60, 70 different types of crops.”
The Fondy Market gets some of its supply from more traditional operations. Robert Craig farms in Mukwanago, Wisconsin, 30 miles southwest of Milwaukee. Craig has sold vegetables at the Fondy Market for 15 years, slowly increasing the volume of vegetables he produces while decreasing the investment in his dairy business.
Robert Craig, Mukwanago, Wisconsin farmer:  “In this neighborhood there's a lot of SNAP benefits and uh, and WIC and um, with, with the SNAP and just have the availability that the market is made it easier for the farmers to accept it. It's really helping a lot. And people in neighborhood, they really depend on that and it's, it's, it's money, you know, going right to the farmer. A big, big portion of our income is through the snap program and with WIC program. So it helps us directly. 
By catering to the needs of its customers, Fondy Farmer’s Market is able to improve the businesses of the farmers that serve it.
For Market to Market, I’m Peter Tubbs
Grinnell Mutual Insurance