When a farmers market becomes a food bank

Farmers market donation jar

A donation jar placed on a book table at the weekly Oxford Community Farmers Market.

The South knows soul food. So, it's not surprising when a farmers market in Mississippi finds a way to combine an experience that's good for the body and the soul. Farmers markets are usually places where one can trust that they are buying high quality, fresh, and usually organic food, but what happens when a farmers market goes beyond simply serving good food, but also a good spirit? This is exactly what Oxford Community Market (OCM) in Oxford, Mississippi, does with their community efforts targeted at giving fresh food to those most in need.

The weekly farmers market operates through the months of April to December. Averaging about 300 customers per week throughout the year, it includes a number of vendors, along with weekly performers and several outreach programs to improve access to healthy fresh local food. However, of these programs, one of the most notable is their inclusion of donation boxes at the end of each shopping experience.

Farmer's market vegetables
Turnips, carrots, and kale: all examples of food grown locally at the Oxford Community Market. (Photo courtesy of Native Son's Farms)

“Ever since the market started we would take up donations at the end of the market from vendors that may have leftover produce that they didn't intend to sell and might end up in a compost bin,” said Betsy Chapman, Director of OCM. “We would take this produce to the food pantry as a nice compliment to the non perishable foods that they give out. It's nice to have that fresh food.”

After realizing how successful this was, the organization decided to find a way for the customers to participate by inviting them to buy extra produce from their favorite farmers and donate it. The food is taken to the Oxford Food Pantry the next morning. After introducing this opportunity to their customers, it took off instantly.

“People make it part of their weekly routines, so we have people that automatically drop stuff off in the box each week,” said Chaplin.

Success in numbers

In 2017 alone, the organization donated about 2,800 pounds of fresh food. Additionally, the food pantry serves over 65 families a week. The market also serves 800 families who are on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), as the only farmers market nutrition program site for the organization in the Lafayette County. Finally, OCM has a program called, Oh Snap!, where they provide a dollar for dollar match for people using SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps).

With these programs in place, and all of them doing so well, Chapman explained that they always look for more areas to add a drop point. One of their newest additions is Canterbury Hills, an apartment complex where 28 seniors with low-income live. Each Wednesday, OCM brings them a box of assorted goodies, while also spending some quality time with them.

“The purpose of this program, is to get good food into the hands of people who need it, but also a way to deepen community connections, tell them about the market, and invite them to come,” Chapman said.

Native Son's Farm
Joseph Currie and his Native Son's Farms partner. (Terrius Harris/University of Mississippi)

A market built on diverse communities

A seemingly flawless farmers market in relation to their customer and community relations, it is not surprising that their vendor relations are also impeccable. Supporting relationships with 20-40 vendors throughout the year, and 40 small business owners, OCM provides the one place where the farmers can be the sales person. “There is no middle man,” said Chapman. “So this is where farmers can maximize their profits by selling directly to consumers.”

Additionally, OCM offers professional development for their businesses, by offering support in things such as graphic design, business cards, and other means of marketing and advertising. It is these efforts that help them not only maintain their current vendors, but have many others willing to work with them at anytime.

This was not only the analysis of Chapman, but also of the vendors. Joseph Currie of Native Son's Farm agrees that a relationship with OCM is very much profitable. The relationship with Native Son’s Farm relationship is specifically interesting because OCM serves as a drop point for their subscribers.

“[The market is] a rustic interpersonal type of relationship where customers get to meet the people that are handling the produce that will end up on their table, that is pretty neat because you get the personal touch of each of the of farmers or one of the bakers,” Currie said.

Sherry Driggers, the creator, owner, and operator of 7 D Farm, was another vendor whose business had increased due to the existence of OCM. She described the market as having a diverse culture, where people of many different backgrounds could meet. “Others come to be a part of this, come together to build each other up and makes a much stronger community as a whole,” said Sherry.

7 D market
Sherry Driggers, owner of 7 D Farms, with her weekly products. (Terrius Harris/University of Mississippi)

She has worked with OCM for 3-4 years now, and she has more than doubled her number of customers since joining, and doubled their presence in the community. Overall, supporting a family of 5 kids with her husband, she is grateful that she can do it by making fresh home-grown and made bread, and it means the world to her that customers come back to buy her products and have an easy way to do that.

Marketing Director Chapman said it best, “Farmers markets serve as a place to sell food, but also as a gathering space. It’s not just about physical wellbeing but also social well-being. From senior citizens who come out to volunteer, to college students helping out, the Oxford Community Market Farmers Market is a great place for all.”  

A role-model to any farmers markets aspiring to grow or start, the Oxford Community Market is not only a home for fresh food, but the home of a community who loves the work the organization has done and continues to do. Whether it be local farmers markets, or something as simple as placing coin jars in multiple locations across the city; OCM does not stop in their efforts to help the community in any way possible.

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