Every Saturday from May-October last year, volunteers from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church tied on bright green aprons, wheeled out wooden carts, and turned the church parking lot into a tiny European street fair.
Folks from surrounding neighborhoods walk, bike or drive in and immediately get pulled into a friendly conversation with old and new friends. The lugs of fresh fruits and vegetables smell earthy and unmistakably fresh and the colors are so vibrant in natural sunlight they are almost unreal. Local musicians, often a cellist from the Virginia Symphony Orchestra play a free concert for the shoppers and children reach their chubby hands into baskets of peaches, apples and the occasional baked goods from local vendors. It’s charming, sweet. I’m immediately smitten.
Many Norfolk natives and transplants can remember when farm markets were popping up next to Macarthur Center Mall, and most of us can remember the Farm Fresh on Boush (I miss you, salad bar and single serve ice cream). But for 1,600 residents in Tidewater Gardens, most of whom are women and children under the age of 9, it had been 50 years since they had fresh fruits and vegetables within walking distance.
This isn’t just sad, it’s a travesty – and thanks to a remarkable partnership between St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, St.Mary’s and Five Points, with marketing support from the Downtown Norfolk Council, those days are now behind us. Weekly market profits are totaled and converted to “Green Vouchers,” a currency that can be used by residents of Tidewater Gardens to buy subsidized fruit and vegetables from the Five Points Mobile Market at St. Marys. Residents typically have an income of less than $12,000 per year, and even subsidized apartments take a large chunk of that income. Last year, the first that the market was open, $8,000 worth of vouchers were distributed and $2,000 worth of fresh produce and vegetables went to the soup kitchen at St. Mary’s.
That’s a lot of cabbage.
Every Saturday last year, the scene across the street at St. Mary’s was delightfully similar. Early in the morning, a van from Five Points Mobile market pulls up and unloads trays of fresh and local fruits and vegetables onto tables inside a small, unassuming enclosure.
Within minutes, smiling shoppers clutching their green vouchers have lined up a block deep, waiting to get in and see what’s fresh this week. The sound of neighbors chatting and exchanging ideas swirls through the market and mixes with the sound of music coming out of the Mobile Market van.
Nearby, a volunteer from EVMS is offering free health screenings, and a young volunteer is helping small children make paper apples out of cheery red construction paper. Some children peek into community garden tubs to see how the seeds they’ve planted are growing. They poke the dirt excitedly, checking to make sure the soil is wet and no weeds are choking their future dinner. I’m equally smitten.
Fast forward to the winter. The Downtown Farm Market is only open into early fall, so the subsidized green vouchers have all but dried up. Without the voucher, which at only $5 still represents a substantial chunk of residents’ food budgets, residents have to make hard choices. Many weekends, children will go back home with only the paper apples they have made. Winter is also when the most fragile population, the youngest and oldest, tend to suffer the most, and with fewer visitors to provide support.
To bridge the food gap, volunteers from St. Paul’s Farm Market and the Downtown 100 have bagged up beans, rice, hot sauce and spices and brought them to the market on a Saturday morning.
A small boy of about 5, with the vocabulary and diction of a child much older, stands next to me, his tiny gloved hands animating his stories. He’s holding a neatly folded dollar, and he’s intently shifting his gaze from the market, which is not yet open, to the stacks of rice and beans. I ask him if he’s planning on shopping, and what he plans to buy. He looks at his siblings, who are at the craft table making paper apples and then looks longingly at the market tables. “Well,” he says, shifting from foot to foot thoughtfully, “An apple is just for me…but a cabbage is for sharing.”
Both markets are slated to open on May 2nd, and both markets are expecting demand to be even higher this year. In response, the St. Paul’s Downtown Farm Market has partnered with local restaurants, including Gershwin’s, for opening day, and the wildly popular Waffletina pop-up (mark your calendars for June 27), local musicians including the Hampton Roads Chamber Players, local flowers from Studio Posy and a Made In Virginia tent with salsa, honey, hot sauce and peanut butter. Market offerings vary based on what’s fresh, so seasonality and availability dictate what you’ll find (follow us on Facebook to know in advance). Last summer’s market stars were giant asparagus, bright and juicy tomatoes, goldbar zucchini, apples, watermelon, squash, peppers and kale. We also went bananas for yellow watermelon, donut peaches and sweet summer strawberries.
With your continued support buying the foods you already love, we’ll be able to bring even more green vouchers across the street, possibly into the fall and winter. The Reverend Scott Hennessy, Rector of St. Paul’s, shared the following quote when asked about the need for both markets: “The first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind. Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world.” – Norman Borlaug, 1970 Nobel Peace Prize Winner
We’re on a mission to bring fresh food to all our neighbors. Join every Saturday from 9-Noon in the St. Paul’s parking lot (behind Nordstrom) and together we can squash hunger. For more info, here is the Facebook page.