The church and the farmer’s market: Investing in communal health and well-being

By the Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot

Farmers markets are now in season. You may be reading this article after an evening meal made with a few “farm fresh” items picked up at a farm stand on the way home from work. Frequenting a market or stand is a delight and a privilege.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits are often accepted at farmers markets, but the base cost of produce can deter some from accessing the bounty. Costs are higher because they support hard-working farm producers who work a smaller scale and without the high-yield production strategies that guarantee large volume growth and quick turn-around.

Markets can also be in neighborhoods and communities where accessibility by public transportation can be difficult for those most in need of quality food options. In “food deserts,” the readily available food may be the meager and often unhealthy food at a convenience store or pharmacy, often at higher prices than supermarkets. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides a tool for assessing which areas of a community are considered underserved by grocery stores or other providers of fresh produce and other items.

When a church near my Albany, N.Y., neighborhood researched farmers markets, it found that such markets were less likely to be offered in the area on Tuesdays. The pastor connected with producers and other vendors to create a Tuesday afternoon market. It helps in two ways. It provides consistency to producers, who know they can sell their current harvest on a particular day. Market hours allow people to stop by on their way home from work or school. Otherwise, they would need to travel further afield to any sort of grocery store.

Churches may have some leverage in helping farmers market producers and the local community at the same time. Because of flexible space, the church fellowship hall and church grounds may be the best place in the community for a farmers market. A robust partnership with a farmers market group can provide year-round access, allowing selling and buying at normally fallow times of year.

Getting involved with a farmers market could be the next great “hidden mission project” in which your church can engage. Taking a youth group or family day outing to the farmers market can be a helpful introduction, as not every family has been to such a market. And, truthfully, with SNAP benefits being a reality for many church families — pastoral households included — it could be an educational point to help connect families with options. I used our church “Deacon’s Fund” to provide each family with “seed money” to assist their shopping as part of the outing. It helps add more fresh produce to the tables of congregants, while also truly putting the money into the local economy. 
 Some producers may be able to connect with your congregation’s mission to serve congregants and the community. One congregation started a gleaning project after each Saturday’s local farmers market. As they closed for the day, farmers donated extra produce to the church, and congregational volunteers gathered and bagged produce to share with households in need.

Talking about food issues in church is second nature, given Baptists are better known as the “people of the potluck.” Examining the food-insecure issues around us and within the fold helps a church see where basic human needs are going unmet.

Hosting a farmers market is one strategy among many. Churches have hosted onsite food pantries, stocked by member donations collected at weekly worship. A church could step back from its own operation and combine efforts with other congregations or organizations to build the capacity of food and drive down the cost of purchasing food for distribution. Such efforts can radically expand whatever safety net exists in the midst of your community’s food desert challenges.

Further, the church can promote its own programs and ministries at the farmers market, while inviting area nonprofits and agencies to be present to provide educational materials and to assist people with connecting to benefits. Some farmers markets and food pantries offer “test kitchen” or “test plot” demonstrations to encourage use of healthy ingredients in home cooking or to teach about growing vegetables at home or in a community garden plot.

However a congregation chooses to engage food-insecurity issues, the underlying goal is the same: to provide for persons and their basic needs in a way that builds community. It’s more than a mere transaction when one is greeted by a producer at a farmers market each week. Helping a household worry less about having enough to eat is a long-term investment in communal health and well-being.

Saying our church is involved in “home mission” refers to the area around our local church as well as around the United States. Designating church budget line items as well as gifts sent through the benevolence fund shows the church body and the Lord that being a church means caring about more than merely building upkeep or Sunday school snacks. It’s a chance to shift gears and help the church reach out with the Gospel through deeds as well as words.

The Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot is associate executive minister of American Baptist Churches of New York State.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.