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Northside Farmers Market bolsters neighborhood access to healthy food

A person works at produce stand in a field.
Nikiya Ellis sells produce at the Northside Farmers Market in June. (Katharine DeRosa/VPM News)

A group of area residents saw their three-year project bear fruit in June when the Northside Farmers Market opened next to Richmond Community High School. 

Certain areas of the neighborhood were historically targeted by redlining, with federal housing officials marking parts of Northside as "hazardous” due to its majority Black population, according to research by the University of Richmond. It left the neighborhood without important infrastructure. So, in 2019, the Northside Food Access Coalition was created out of a need to address access to fresh and healthy food. 

Cheyenne Nicholas, the coalition’s spokesperson, helped organize the new market, and emphasized their belief in providing access to good food and desire to serve the community. 

“We want to have it just be a place where people can come on Thursdays and get the food they need, and people get to know each other,” Nicholas said about the market, which runs between 4 and 7:30 p.m. each week. 

While the market is meant to provide healthy food in Northside, it also supports local farmers by offering a reliable marketplace where their products can be sold. Each week, food is purchased by the market in bulk with farmers setting the price for their goods. And urban farmer Duron Chavis said the coalition doesn’t mark up the price to consumers.

There might be a handful of convenience stores in the area near the market, but few places offer fresh fruits and vegetables. 

Northside resident Robin Gahan is the vice president of health strategies at the Richmond’s American Heart Association, one of the coalition’s community partners.  

“I think the most immediate impact is again that access to fresh fruits and vegetables, especially those that are locally grown and support also our local farmers,” they said. 

Funding, CSAs and SNAP

The Virginia Food Access Investment Fund, established in 2020 by the General Assembly, gave $50,000 to the Northside Access Food Coalition to help establish the market. 

The bill was created to assist low-income areas with scant access to food. Portions of Northside, including the Brookland Park Corridor and Highland, meet the criteria, according to the  United States Department of Agriculture, because at least 33% of residents are more than a mile away from the closest grocery store.

The Northside Farmers Market is noteworthy in its commitment to offering Community Supported Agriculture shares, an approach to farming and sales, initially devised by Black farmers in the South.

CSAs work like this: People pay a fee to farmers ahead of time in exchange for receiving produce throughout the cultivation season. The coalition’s CSAs include multiple farmers who bring their produce to the market, enabling consumers to receive a range of healthy food from various producers. 

The market also accepts Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits and participates in the Virginia Fresh Match program, which cuts the cost of fresh produce in half for those paying with SNAP. People using the benefits, however, are unable to purchase CSAs in advance online. 

There are currently 70 CSAs being offered, and Chavis said one of his goals for the market is to grow, eventually providing even more variety. 

Local farmers

Though farmers don't have to attend the market, Justin Upshaw, Northside resident and owner of Essential Microgreens RVA, said he’s choosing to participate. 

One of the reasons he joined the Northside Farmers Market was to connect people experiencing low access to healthy food and teach them that they can grow their own microgreens. To further engage the community, Upshaw said he also plans to offer a 25% discount to people who purchase his microgreens using SNAP benefits. 

The farmer's experience at this market has been a bit different than others he's attended, though.  

“This one has a more homey, more casual feel because it is right in the middle of a neighborhood. I mean, we're sitting there looking right at Community High School,” Upshaw said. “Then on the other side of me, there’s a neighborhood and the rest of the Brookland Park area.”  

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