Study finds farmers markets can increase healthy food access among the most disadvantaged

In the last few years, the residents of Flint, Michigan, and its surrounding suburbs lost five grocery stores. Today, within the city limits, there's just one large chain grocery store, about 10 small and often-pricier groceries, and 150 liquor stores, convenience stores and gas stations. People who have a car often travel out to the suburbs for more variety and better prices. Much of Flint is a food desert — a place where accessing healthy, affordable food is a very real challenge.

But thankfully, a recent study in Flint found that simply relocating an area farmers market is making a positive difference. Such research adds to a growing body of literature on the role of farmers markets in expanding access to healthy foods and diets, especially among particularly vulnerable communities.

“Smaller-scale food retailers like farmers markets really do have the potential to strengthen communities,” study author Rick Sadler, a Flint native and an assistant professor in the Division of Public Health at Michigan State University, told me.

Recently published in the journal Applied Geography, Sadler’s study examined the impact of relocating the Flint Farmers’ Market from the edge of an industrial district that wasn’t accessible by bus, foot or bike to a repurposed downtown building right across from the city’s main bus station. Sadler writes:

Because much of the city has been classified as a food desert, the farmers' market's move downtown is a strategy of locating in the middle and drawing people in via the public transportation network. This move thus presents the opportunity to evaluate the following research question: What is the impact of a farmers' market move on customer shopping characteristics? A specific sub-research question is also addressed, namely: Are new neighborhoods (specifically those underserved by the conventional food system) being served by the adjacency of this market to the main bus station?

To find answers to such questions, Sadler adapted a 2011 questionnaire used to survey Flint Farmers’ Market customers before the market moved downtown. This way he could directly compare differences in customer characteristics between 2011 and 2015. Among its many questions, the survey asked respondents to indicate the nearest intersection to their homes. Sadler geocoded those answers and overlaid them with a socioeconomic distress index, which would eventually tell him if the market’s relocation heightened access for more people from disadvantaged neighborhoods. The survey also asked how people traveled to the market, which served as a socioeconomic proxy as well. (Sadler noted that because it’s so difficult to get around Flint via public transit or foot, residents who take the bus are more likely to have resource constraints. Flint is still very much a car-centric city, he said.) In both 2011 and 2015, more than 400 customers were recruited to take the survey.

Sadler found that in 2015, 21 percent of survey respondents said they took the bus, walked or biked to the market, compared to just 4 percent in 2011. Also, 37 percent of 2015 customers came from neighborhoods in the two highest quintiles of socioeconomic distress, compared to 31 percent in 2011. In fact, Sadler told me that the percentage of customers coming from Flint’s most distressed neighborhoods doubled after the move downtown. (Greater awareness that many market vendors accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits may have also contributed to the increase, he noted.) The study also found that customers who reported food access problems were more likely to visit the farmers market to buy general groceries, as opposed to visiting the market for the experience or its “ambience,” Sadler said. He wrote:

The use of the Market by a substantially different and previously underserved clientele is a major contribution in terms of the provision of ‘preventive health services’ — that is, the use of the Market by disadvantaged, underserved residents is important for helping to provide people with a better opportunity to consume healthy foods. This diverse clientele also reflects work by Guthman, Morris, and Allen (2006), who showed that market managers increasingly seek to balance economic motives with social justice goals to improve access to healthy foods. This motivation, seemingly shared by the Flint Farmers' Market, is reflected by the simultaneous increase in customer spending at the Market and customers attending from distressed neighborhoods.

Overall, the 2015 survey found that 11 percent of respondents said transportation is a barrier to accessing food and 29 percent said distance is a barrier. Also, nearly half said they have at least one issue accessing healthy foods and 24 percent used food assistance. In addition to widening healthy eating opportunities, moving the farmers market downtown was good for business too. According to Sadler’s study, data indicate that yearly attendance has grown by the hundreds of thousands and revenue is up by the millions, from $4.9 million in direct sales in 2011 to nearly $14 million in 2015.

“But it’s about much more than economic stimulus,” Sadler told me. “Farmers markets tend to have greater commitments to their communities too. They want to grow food that’s good and healthy and to help people make healthier decisions.”

According to the latest Census data, nearly 42 percent of Flint residents live below the poverty line. In addition to food access issues, Flint is now facing a massive drinking water contamination crisis.

To request a full copy of the farmers market study, visit the Michigan State University newsroom.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for nearly 15 years.

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