Jenn Collins and her husband Brad Barnes began volunteering with Georgia Organics years ago. The couple shares a passion for doing all they can to grow fresh and sustainable food sources in our community.
In 2015, the couple found out that Columbus had been chosen by Georgia Organics for their Food Oasisproject. Food Oasis is a project that seeks to eliminate food deserts- or large municipal areas that lack widespread access to fresh food. Immediately, Collins said she and Barnes knew they wanted to be a part of the effort.
As a part of the Food Oasis initiative, Collins and her husband applied for and received a grant to develop a community orchard in Bibb City where they live. They planted in January of 2017 and found themselves with healthy blooming plants that just needed time. "We immediately realized that it was great, but it wouldn't put a lot of food on people's plates- especially not right away," said Collins.
Collins knew there had to be a more immediate answer. "We decided we needed to find a way that would bring food to the people in our area that didn't have access to it," she explained. "We knew that in order to do that, we'd have to develop a farmers market."
Collins and Barnes spent most of the next six months scouting locations around the city. "We looked at the bus transfer stations, and considered a number of factors about where would be the best place to put a pop up market in town," said Collins.
Then, last August Collins saw a post that MercyMed was hosting a Food Oasis meeting to have members come and see their new community garden. Collins and Barnes were amazed. "We had no idea the scope of what they were doing until then," Collins said. "We lived across the street and didn't realize how much they cared about nutrition as health. They'd already taken that next step with the community garden."
Collins emailed them the next day.
In the meantime, she also contacted Georgia Organics to explain her idea of developing a farmers market behind MercyMed near their community garden. Georgia Organics put the couple in touch with MercyMed, who had also talked to some of the farmers who were a part of Georgia Organics about how to provide fresh food locally.
Collins knew then that North Highland Farmers Market was going to happen.
""We sort of just all realized at the same time that this was a magical place, and this was the perfect way to achieve our collective goal of providing fresh food to our community," said Collins. "In October, we sat down in a room and just decided to figure out how to make it happen. We knew we were going to apply for a grant, but we had to figure out what we needed."
They decided to do a couple of pop-up markets in early November to gauge how the public would react. The response was overwhelming, and resulted in a Georgia Organics grant to help with the startup costs for the market. Wholesome Wave Georgia also joined the effort by providing a way for the market to double SNAP dollars for EBT customers.
"The way it works is that every farm has to agree to participate in the double SNAP program. It's a standard they have to agree to," said Collins. "By everyone accepting the SNAP initiative we're doing, it takes away the awkwardness for customers having to ask whether their EBT card is accepted or not. Everyone who walks into the market is able to afford what they need to eat well."
"We sort of just all realized at the same time that this was a magical place, and this was the perfect way to achieve our collective goal of providing fresh food to our community," said Collins.
The way the market works is both simple and practical. Shoppers enter the market and are directed to Collins' information tent where she and her team have tokens available for purchase. Each person determines the amount they'd like to spend at the market based on their needs for the week. For those with an EBT card, the token amount is doubled. All of the farmers accept tokens for purchases and give shoppers food in return. At the end of the day, farmers return their tokens to Collins. Then, she totals their earnings and submits a request to Wholesome Wave for the farmers to get reimbursed for the other 50% of their total sales.
"By utilizing this system from Wholesome Wave, community members are able to get the fresh food they need at an affordable price and our farmers still get paid the full amount they need to be able to grow and provide the food for us all to consume," explained Collins.
It's important to know that customers need not have SNAP to shop at the market. North Highland Farmers Market is open to the public and all are welcomed. For those not using an EBT card, tokens are given at face value. Payment is accepted in the form of card or cash.
North Highland Farmers Market happens every first and third Wednesday of the month (that's this week!) from 4 p.m. - 6 p.m. The market runs from June through November. Local farms that are represented are: Jenny Jack Farm, Neil Pope's Farm, Pecan Point Farm, and Elijah's Farm.
Collins said the impact of the market has grown exponentially since it opened the first week of June. "Between the first and second market, we more than tripled our EBT totals," she said. "We're seeing people using their EBT SNAP dollars to get their food for the week."
The financial evidence is nice to see, but the community is responding by doing more than just showing up. "At our first market, one woman thanked us because she'd been taking four buses to get her food every week," Collins shared. "That's when we knew there was truly a need we could meet."
MercyMed is involved by providing the location and by acting as the organization with which permits were applied for and secured. Collins is strictly a volunteer, but there are several MercyMed physicians who have gotten involved as well. "They've been nothing but supportive from the very beginning," said Collins happily. "They have invested in every way they can support us, and we are very grateful to them."
Collins says the farmers love the market as well. "Our farmers are making as much in two hours as they're making all morning on Saturdays," she said. "We'd all like to see more of the Saturday crowd on market weeks as well. We are right on the way home for anyone who works downtown. You can get meat, eggs, dairy, and anything you need for the week. It's a great second option for people who are committed to eating fresh food all week."
"At our first market, one woman thanked us because she'd been taking four buses to get her food every week," Collins shared.
Collins said that she sees the impact of the market growing into something much more than just a provider of fresh food. "We have so many flyers and posters that we've printed for MercyMed to hand out to patients, and we're seeing results already from them," she explained. "Our next goal after we get through this first season, is to apply for a food and vegetable prescription plan (like Wholesome Wave's FVRxProgram) that would provide actual prescriptions and funds for healthier foods for the families we serve."
FVRx's website indicates that low-income patients with chronic conditions that can be improved with diet can qualify for food prescriptions that provide up to $1/day for each member of their family to be spent on nutritious foods. The prescriptions are good for up to 6 months.
"We'd love to patients at MercyMed receive these food prescriptions and be able to walk right out the door to the market and purchase the healthy foods they need to get well," said Collins. "It's a great way for us to make a lasting impact that will really make a difference and change people's lives. That's our ultimate goal." ◼︎
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