Our Tent Talk guest this week is Ben Feldman, the Policy Director for the national Farmers’ Market Coalition. Ben tells us about his passion for farmers’ markets, gives us an update on current Farmers’ Market Coalition projects, and clues us in on important food system issues. In this episode we get a little nerdy and dive deep into some food policy!
A long-time supporter
Ben started his career as a farmers’ market advocate selling produce and baked goods at farm stands. Later he worked as a farmers’ market manager before moving on to help found the California Alliance of Farmers’ Markets. Now Ben currently serves as the Policy Director for the national Farmers Market Coalition, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to strengthening farmers’ markets across the US so that they can serve as community assets while providing real income opportunities for farmers.
As the Policy Director, Ben helps farmers, vendors, market managers and shoppers understand the ways that federal policy influences farmers’ markets. Ben’s job includes sharing information about the status of current policies and helping farmers’ market communities connect with their federal legislatures. He also spends a fair amount of time lobbying on the behalf of farmers’ markets in Washington DC!
The past, present, and future of farmers’ markets
Farmers’ markets have changed over the last decade and Ben has witnessed the evolution firsthand. Not only are there more of them across the country, Ben also believes there has been a rise in the professionalism of the organizations operating them. “There’s a level of experience and knowledge base that definitely didn’t exist when I started.”
Ben also believes that farmers’ markets have made a large impact in the last few years. “I’ll go ahead and say it. I think they’ve changed the way Americans eat.” More and more, consumers are opting to purchase fresh, healthy, and local foods. And Ben believes that other industries have noticed. “The influence has been felt in restaurants, in grocery stores and produce box delivery programs.”
As far as predictions go, Ben sees areas for improvement, but is ultimately optimistic. People may be more interested in healthier foods nowadays, however there are also more ways that people can get their produce. Ben believes that farmers’ markets need to become more competitive in order to regain customers who transitioned to meal delivery programs or grocery stores that now carry higher quality produce.
Farmers’ market managers and vendors may consider looking for ways to be more competitive with grocery stores. Providing shopping carts for customers or parking closer to the market are little things we can do to make it easier for people to shop at the markets. Eliminating those barriers for shoppers to take home more food from farmers’ markets can make a big difference.
Issues to keep our eyes on
One current food system issue that Ben is paying close attention to is digital payments in the farmers’ market space. “The pace with which technology is changing has been faster in some areas and slower in others and one of the challenges in particular is around SNAP and WIC acceptance at farmers’ markets of those forms of payment,” explained Ben.
To learn more about current issues surrounding SNAP and WIC acceptance at farmers’ markets, read this article on the recent shutdown of Novo Dia Group (the country’s largest provider of SNAP at farmers markets).
Another federal policy that will greatly impact farmers’ markets is the recent expiration of the the Farm Bill. To find out how farmers’ markets may be impacted, read Ben’s blog post here. If you’re interested in staying up to date on other farmers’ market issues, you can learn more at www.farmersmarketcoalition.org.
Where can I listen to Ben’s full episode of Tent Talk?
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Do you have a farmers’ market question you’d like us to answer on air? Got an idea for a future episode topic? Is there someone you think we should interview? Please let us know!