The Wash

Silver Spring outdoor market looks to provide fresh, accessible produce

In many large cities, affordable fresh grains and vegetables can be difficult to find. A D.C.-based market organizer with ties to Silver Spring is looking to change the dynamic.

Working with grains was a natural fit for K.T. Alexander. Growing up on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania, she spent her early years raising crops to feed her family cows.

After moving to D.C. in August, she began searching for volunteer opportunities to make fresh grains accessible.

Alexander now works with the Mid-Atlantic Grain Stand, a small farm produce vendor. The stand is funded by a partnership between The Common Grain Alliance and FRESHFARM, a pair of nonprofits that emphasize promoting small organic grain farm goods.

“Compared to what you would get at the grocery store, because of the national supply chains that those products are on, it takes about 2-3 years for them to hit the shelf, so it’s a lot older,” Alexander said. “When folks are able to access these local grains, they’re gaining nutritional value.”

Mid-Atlantic Grain Stand vendor Grace Harmon examines packages of produce.

FRESHFARM plays an active role in collaborating with vendors such as the Mid-Atlantic Grain Stand and organizes open air farmers markets across the D.C. Metropolitan Area. Most recently, FRESHFARM hosted its Winter Market in Silver Spring on Dec. 16, 2023.

The Winter Market drew hundreds of shoppers and brought together dozens of Maryland-based farmers and chefs looking to promote their brands in Montgomery County. The market was organized by a partnership between Downtown Silver Spring and FRESHFARM.

FRESHFARM functions primarily as an organizer, partnering with small business owners in D.C., Maryland, and Northern Virginia. After starting out in Dupont Circle, FRESHFARM vendor Grace Harmon said, the nonprofit rapidly expanded and now operates out of four locations, including Silver Spring.

“Our goal is to elevate and raise awareness about local grain options in this region,” Harmon said. “Everything that is out here has been grown milled and packaged within a 200-mile radius of the city of D.C.”

FRESHFARM is unique among outdoor market organizers in that its satellite vendors, such as the Mid-Atlantic Grain Stand, take Electronic Benefit Transfer cards provided to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program enrollees.

SNAP — formerly referred to as food stamps — provides aid for low-income individuals purchasing food, yet program participants often find fresh grains from organic markets are financially out of reach. FRESHFARM Market Operator Pam Simon hopes her organization can work to close the gap through a deal offered to SNAP benefit recipients to match purchases up to $30 at the market, helping to keep the purchase affordable.

“FRESHFARM’s mission is really to do a lot of support for food access,” Simon said. “We have several different kinds of food access avenues for people. Individuals who are on SNAP, EBT, if they use them at the market, they get double, up to $30 to spend. Money comes off their SNAP card, and then we match it.”

 As groups such as FRESHFARM expand access to fresh grains for many Montgomery County residents, many businesses featured its markets come from outside of Silver Spring, potentially creating economic friction between vendors and local business owners.

Reed Ridwal, assistant manager of a Silver Spring sushi business, said he tends to get along well with farmers market vendors and believes that they, not unlike himself, are businesspeople looking to make a living, but he also said locally owned shops and restaurants feel the pressure to out-sell markets on days they open.

“If it’s the same type of restaurant, like one or two Japanese restaurants, that’s competition,” Ridwal said. “It’s fine though, there’s no problem.”

Promotional signs put up by Downtown Silver Spring advertise the recent Winter Market.

While they may generate some competition, markets — particularly those which vend fresh produce — serve a vital function for under-resourced communities, Carl Brown, the executive director of the District of Columbia Small Business Development Center, said.

Brown said many areas in the greater Washington region are food deserts; areas where residents lack access to fresh healthy foods. For these communities, visiting pop-up markets can provide a rare opportunity to purchase fresh, nutritious meals.

Brown drew on his own experience working at Howard University and recalled a student-led initiative to organize farmers markets on campus as evidence for his claim. He said these markets provided a healthy alternative for students without creating competition for local businesses, as these vendors tend to sell a very different style of food. He added this example could be exported to food deserts on a larger scale.

“Does it take away from the small businesses that are there?” Brown said. “No, because they’re complementing what they have, right? They’ve got the cookies, the chocolate bars and all that. They don’t have fruit, vegetables that the students want.”

FRESHFARM will return to Silver Spring on Saturday, December 23.

Ben Baker

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